The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Charleston District, continually strives to balance responsible economic development with environmental protection, so when a property owner or a business applies for a permit to impact wetlands or other waters of the U.S. the Corps requires them to avoid and minimize potential impacts to the maximum extent practicable. Compensatory mitigation is used to offset the unavoidable loss of aquatic resource functions and ecological services on the project site.
“The overall goal of compensatory mitigation is to maintain and improve the quality of aquatic resources in a watershed,” said Nat Ball, project manager. For example, if a property owner needs to fill wetlands in order to develop a new residential or commercial facility, they must submit a mitigation plan that restores, enhances, or preserves other aquatic resources within the same watershed as the project site.”
There are two ways that an applicant can satisfy the requirement for compensatory mitigation: buying credits from an established mitigation bank, or preparing and implementing a permittee-responsible mitigation plan.
When Boeing approached the Corps about expanding their existing facility, it was clear that the proposed project would have substantial impacts to waters of the U.S. At the time, there were two mitigation banks located within the Cooper River watershed, but the loss of more than 150 acres of aquatic resources on the Boeing site would require the purchase of all of the available mitigation credits within the watershed. There weren’t enough available to offset their impact, so they would also have to implement a permittee-responsible mitigation plan.
Boeing had to get creative and find their own permittee-responsible mitigation site. Working with several environmental and resource agencies, they were able to identify and purchase nearly 4,000 acres of land, including more than 2,200 acres of land in the privately-owned Fairlawn Plantation.
“Fairlawn Plantation is surrounded by the Francis Marion National Forest,” said Ball. “Approximately 500 acres of wetlands at Fairlawn were restored about 10 years ago to create a mitigation bank. Boeing’s proposed mitigation plan would add to this acreage of restored wetlands, and would turn the entire 2,241 acres of wetlands and uplands over to the U.S. Forest Service for public access and management as part of the national forest.”
Restoring the property back to its natural state is no easy task so Boeing is working with The Nature Conservancy to successfully restore it.
“Fairlawn was historically a longleaf pine forest,” said Eric Krueger, director of science and stewardship for TNC. “A healthy longleaf pine ecosystem consists of mature pine trees and low shrubs, like blueberries, and grass and wildflower floor covers. When a longleaf pine forest is neglected for long periods of time, mid-story hardwoods, such as sweet gums and water oaks, take over and choke out the floor covering because they don’t get any sunlight. Our goal for this restoration is to get rid of the mid-story hardwoods, and reduce industrially-planted pines back to natural densities.”
Prescribed burnings, herbicide and logging are some of the methods that TNC included in the restoration plan they created for this project and so far the plan is working.
“Restoration overall is progressing excellently and we are on track with the plan,” said Krueger. “We’ve had some challenges, particularly with how wet it’s been over the last few years, but the bulk of the logging and targeted herbicide work is completed. Next up is the second prescribed burning and continued planting of longleaf pine trees.”
Boeing is three years into the restoration project with approximately two more years of work until it’s complete. Boeing submits an annual monitoring report to the Corps outlining the work they have done on their mitigation sites and their plans for the next year.
TNC goes to Fairlawn Plantation twice a year to monitor the property for tree density, an increase in grass cover and low shrubs, and a decrease in mid-story hardwood trees.
Boeing’s efforts and success have paved the way for other businesses to purchase additional land and to perform additional mitigation activities at Fairlawn plantation. Since then, the South Carolina Ports Authority, Palmetto Railways and Mercedes-Benz have each purchased tracts at Fairlawn Plantation. These companies will follow in the footsteps of Boeing to restore the land then turn it over to USFS.