June 11, 1998Writer: Aaron Hooverahoover@ufl.eduSource: Mark Brown (352) 392-2309
GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- Florida's phosphate industry is good at restoring wetlands destroyed by mining but should step up efforts to fit them into the surrounding landscape so they filter runoff from farms, serve as habitat and help prevent floods. So concludes a recent report on a three-year study of the industry's track record in wetlands restoration by the University of Florida's Center for Wetlands, the Florida and National Audubon societies and several consulting firms. "We concluded that wetlands reclamation by the phosphate industry is getting better with each passing year -- that overall, the industry has developed techniques that result in productive wetlands, especially in the last several years," said Mark Brown, assistant professor of environmental engineering sciences. "However, we feel there often wasn't much attention given to the landscape scale -- how all the parts fit together." Phosphate companies have restored thousands of acres of wetlands in Florida since 1975, when state law began requiring mining companies reclaim all land lost to mining. The industry mines about 5,000 acres a year, mostly in Polk, Hardee and Hillsborough counties in Central Florida and in Hamilton County in north Florida, said Steve Richardson, director of reclamation research at the Florida Institute of Phosphate Research. For the study, researchers scrutinized 156 restored wetlands, some more than two decades old but most averaging 5 years old. Consisting of both marsh and forested wetlands, the plots averaged 66 acres each, with some as large as 280 acres and as small as less than an acre. Industry and state regulators did not keep data on many of the wetlands, making it hard to reach solid conclusions in some cases, Brown said. But the researchers determined the phosphate industry has greatly improved its techniques since it launched restoration efforts, and most wetlands restored in recent years are healthy and productive. "The majority of constructed wetland projects are young sites and are typically productive ecosystems," the study says. But the study also found room for improvement. Nearly three-quarters of land surrounding restored wetlands is other mined land, the study said. Because the mined land often is a patchwork of reclamation projects in various stages of completion, many restored wetlands are not "ecologically connected or integrated," the study said, noting the industry had made strides in this area in recent years. "It continues to be a real challenge to link reclamation projects and their natural ecological communities together in a cohesive regional habitat network," the study said. "However, current approaches to reclamation and reclamation planning have improved these linkages to provide a habitat network." The study recommended phosphate companies redouble efforts to tackle the problem in part by planning restored wetlands based on plant habitat, wildlife habitat and water flow rather than on mining activities. It also said the industry should reclaim drainage basins starting with headwaters and moving to the basin's mouth to ensure wetlands perform well. "Increase the required area of upland forested communities so that constructed wetlands can achieve better off-site ecological connectedness," said one recommendation. In the future, Brown said, the industry needs to focus not only on restoring the wetlands and reclaiming mined land, but also on the "ecological engineering" challenge of creating functioning landscapes. "The way the Florida landscape was developed in the past was helter-skelter," Brown said. "You wanted a piece of land, you did what you wanted with it. We have the opportunity -- 5,000 acres a year -- to do something right, to put the land back in a way that leaves you with great agricultural land in a symbiotic interface with the environment so they both benefit." The Florida Institute of Phosphate Research, an independent state agency funded by a severance tax on phosphate, paid for the $350,000 study. Researchers have since submitted a new proposal for a study to determine how to better integrate wetlands.-30-
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