Bringing discovery and ecology into accord

This high-quality wetland area south of Giese Road lies in the path of proposed LBNF construction, but it would be spared by diligent planning to avoid its destruction. Photo: Scott Kuykendahl, Planning Resources Inc.

Fermilab is known as a protector and friend of the environment. We have preserved and reconstructed more than 1,000 acres of tallgrass prairie over the last 40 years. But other communities must be protected as well to preserve the overall ecosystem. Another ecosystem that is just as endangered as prairies is wetlands.

When many people think of wetlands, they think of marshes, swamps and open water, but in fact, wetlands are more subtle than that. The legal definition of wetlands includes forested areas, shrub-scrub and wet meadows, which my be more or less dry at the surface, but support plant species that rely on saturated soils just below the surface.

As Fermilab moves into a new phase of constructing new experiments such as Muon g-2 and Mu2e and prepares for a future long-baseline neutrino facility (LBNF), it is more obvious than ever that construction often must be reconciled with various environmental protection issues. In many cases, that means conflict between building where we would like and protecting wetlands. We often perceive wetlands as thwarting our wishes to place a building, or even a parking lot, where we think (other things being equal) it makes the most sense.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers implements the Clean Water Act, which protects aquatic resources, including wetlands, from development where protection makes the most sense. How does this work? The standard way to evaluate wetland impacts is to require permit applicants first to do everything possible to avoid the impact, then to minimize any remaining unavoidable impacts before asking for a permit.

For example, in the case of LBNF, where there are compelling scientific reasons for placing the construction where it is planned, the Corps may agree that these impacts are unavoidable. In a case where another kind of development, such as an office building, hotel or a parking lot, is in question, they may say such impacts are not unavoidable, unless it can be argued that the proposed location is somehow necessary. For these kinds of development, the presumption is that an upland (non-wetland) area could be found for a construction site.

Even very small wetlands can be important in preserving biodiversity. Have you ever seen an egret or great blue heron hunting in a road ditch? These small, remnant wetlands, while they may not be impressive from our perspective, are important to preserving biodiversity, and the loss of hundreds of acres of small wetlands a tenth of an acre at a time, over time, have a profound effect on the ecosystem. It is important to keep these rare remnant communities in mind when planning the Fermilab of the future.

Rod Walton