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Saturday, August 18, 2012

Conservation at a Turtle's Pace

I stumbled across story on-line yesterday about some folks who remove rattlesnakes from sites in northern Pennsylvania where gas companies are preparing to build well pads to drill into the Marcellus Shale for natural gas.  I guess venomous snakes are what it takes for some developers to be proactive in addressing impact to natural resources (or in this case, the impact from the snakes) at project sites.   But if site workers are not at risk for being bitten, it’s usually more difficult to get developers to be proactive about impacts to natural resources at project sites.

In this part of eastern Pennsylvania, it seems that the most common threatened or endangered species to look out for is the bog turtle (Clemmys muhlenbergii or Glyptemys muhlenbergii )).  I'm not saying that the turtle itself is common, but its range is in pockets throughout a large part of this and surrounding states.  On construction projects that require any kind of a federal permit (like an FCC permit for a cell tower installation) or require an actual environmental impact study, one of the first steps in the permitting process is to send an endangered species inquiry to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).  In the responses from the FWS, the bog turtle is often cited as a species of concern for projects in this neck of the woods (or this neck of the bog).

Bog Turtle.  From Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program Fact Sheet
The bog turtle is the smallest turtle found in Pennsylvania and is on the federal list of threatened species.  Quoting a boilerplate response letter from an inquiry to the FWS,  "The northern population of the bog turtle occurs in the states of Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Hersey, Delaware, and Massachusetts.  Bog turtles inhabit shallow, spring-fed fens, sphagnum bogs, swamps, marshy meadows, and pastures characterized by soft, muddy bottoms; clear, cool, slow-flowing water, often forming a network of rivulets; high humidity; and an open canopy.  Bog turtles usually occur in small, discrete populations occupying suitable wetland habitat dispersed along a watershed … Some wetlands occupied by bog turtles are located in agricultural area and are subject to grazing by livestock."

So if any potential bog turtle habitat, as described above, is present within the area of a proposed project, the FWS requires a qualified wetland scientist to conduct a bog turtle survey (a survey in this case means a field inspection).  If the bog turtle survey confirms the presence of wetland conditions favored by the bog turtle, and if direct or indirect impacts to the wetlands in question cannot be avoided, a more detailed survey must be completed and submitted to the FWS.  Then if the detailed survey finds that bog turtles are within an area that will be disturbed, and if project activities might adversely affect the bog turtles, you can count on the project’s progress slowing down to a turtles’ pace.

When the presence of a 4-inch long turtle holds up any kind of project in which developers or politicians have money or reputation on the line, you’re going to hearing cursing and moaning about the “damned tree-huggers” and the “whacko environmentalists.”  However, I do not feel badly for their inconvenience.  Because,

Proper planning prevents poor performance.

That phrase doesn’t just apply to photocopier salesmen doing their homework before giving a presentation to a potential new client.  It also applies to stakeholders in projects in which an endangered species issue has the potential to change the project dynamics.  I’ll explain.

A couple months ago, I was in a meeting with a local government official discussing a request from a conservation organization for permission to access some municipally owned land to perform a natural resource survey as part of a state-wide natural resource inventory.  First of all, it’s public land, so, in my opinion, asking permission was unnecessary other than to massage the politician’s ego.  The unnamed official bristled at the suggestion that some environmentalist-type guy would go onto this municipal property and possibly find an endangered plant or animal.  He said, “If he finds something there, that’s going to tie our hands if we want to subdivide this property in the future and sell it off.”

Obviously, he and I have vastly different ideas of what it means to be a steward of municipally owned open space.  He was concerned that a bog turtle might turn up during the proposed survey and scuttle his plans to open even more of our community up to the rampant over-development that has made us the fastest growing municipality in Pennsylvania for the past decade or so.  So I then pointed out to him that by finding out now if there are any sensitive plant or animal species on the 84-acre parcel in question, any future plans for the parcel could proceed in an educated manner and avoid the delays associated with waiting until after the planning stages to do any necessary natural resource surveys.  To give the official a differing viewpoint, I added, “If we wanted to put in a walking and biking trail around the perimeter of the property, we could easily route the trail around any sensitive habitats that might be discovered now instead of having to re-route the trail while we are in the middle of construction.”  Plan now to prevent poor performance later.  The official grudgingly consented to allow the conservation organization to do the natural resource inventory on the municipal property.

We haven’t seen the results from the inventory of the property yet.  But I would be surprised if there were actually any bog turtles on that 84-acre parcel after having been plowed and planted for the past 150 or so years.  I don’t know if there are any threatened or endangered plants there either.  It would be nice if there were a few bog turtles or spade-footed toads there, because they might make it tougher for our local officials to try to liquidate an 84-acre natural asset like this parcel.  Unfortunately, it’s not easy for these local officials to grasp the concept that municipal open space is there for residents of our township to get out among nature and play, observe, enjoy.  Open space is not an inventory of real estate to be auctioned off to create more impervious surfaces, more runoff to streams, more traffic, and less quality of life.

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