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Bank’s ‘credits’ offset environmental damage

Program helps control erosion

POSTED: June 3, 2008 5:00 a.m.
There’s at least one bank in Hall County that doesn’t have to worry about the foreclosure crisis.

The Chicopee Woods mitigation bank doesn’t loan out money. Instead, it gives customers the right to destroy the environment.

And oddly enough, that’s a good thing.

About a year ago, Elachee Nature Science Center established a program through which developers can buy "mitigation credits." If a construction project causes damage to a stream, the developer can offset this by paying money to the program. The funds are used to rehabilitate eroded streams in the 1,500-acre Chicopee Woods Nature Preserve, where Elachee is located.

There’s a total of 19,000 linear feet of stream in the mitigation bank. In the first phase of the project, 2,500 feet of credits were made available for purchase.

Steve Jones, a Stone Mountain-based environmental consultant who is doing the stream restoration work, gave a progress report Thursday to the Chicopee Woods stakeholders coalition.

"Credit sales are extremely brisk in spite of the economy," he said. "Credits for the first phase are almost sold out."

More bundles of credits will be released for purchase during a seven-year period. More than $300,000 worth of credits has been sold so far, helping to restore an unnamed tributary of Walnut Creek. Jones has been working to improve the creek channel so that it is better able to handle stormwater flow.

Cynthia Taylor, natural resources director at Elachee, said much of the money from the first phase had to be used to pay back loans Elachee took out for the program’s start-up costs.

"But eventually, the bank should be self-financing," she said.

The mitigation bank is one of several projects the Chicopee Woods stakeholders group has undertaken in order to control erosion and other environmental problems in the nature preserve.

Taylor said Elachee is just finishing up on a three-year, $800,000 grant it received from the U.S. Environmental Protection Administration, with matching funds from the city of Gainesville and Hall County governments.

The money was used for several stormwater management projects, including the most recent, a "pervious" parking lot. Instead of paving the overflow parking lot, Elachee chose to spend about $100,000 on a system that features a 6-inch-deep layer of gravel held in place by nylon webbing.

Whereas asphalt pavement creates pollution through stormwater runoff, Taylor said this new system "can absorb a great deal of rain and allow it to slowly filter out."

It costs twice as much as asphalt. "But as we add facilities, we’re trying to have the least amount of impact on the watershed that we can," she said.

The project also conforms to Elachee’s mission of environmental education. "We’ll be doing signage to explain the materials and methods used," Taylor said. "Our volunteers have also planted a rain garden near the parking lot to capture water."

Taylor said she also is proud of Chicopee Woods Cooperative Weed Management Area, which was established last year. A variety of agencies — public and private, city, county and state — have collaborated to stop the spread of invasive exotic species in Chicopee Woods and beyond.

"If we kill our kudzu and our neighbor doesn’t, we really haven’t accomplished anything," Taylor said.

Chicopee’s weed management area was the first in Georgia, and Taylor was surprised at how quickly it came together.

"We’ve had a very successful year," she said. "Most CWMAs have nothing like this amount of funding during their first year."

The program has already spent $126,800, made possible through grants from the National Fish & Wildlife Fund and the U.S. Forest Service, as well as matching funds from Elachee, the city of Gainesville, the Chicopee Woods Area Park Commission and the Georgia Exotic Pest Plant Council.

Taylor said they’ve mapped more than 50 acres of plant infestations in the park and surrounding area and have treated about 40 acres, thanks to volunteers donating more than 260 hours of their time.

Volunteerism also has brought another honor to Elachee. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources singled out the Chicopee Woods stakeholders group for its 2007 Adopt-a-Stream Watershed award. Al Crego, chairman of the Chicopee Woods Area Park Commission, accepted the award Thursday on behalf of the group.

Taylor said the DNR was impressed by Chicopee’s very active Adopt-a-Stream program, in which volunteers test the preserve’s creeks for pollution and conduct cleanups.

"There aren’t many groups in the state like this coalition," she said. "The DNR felt it was a model for what an Adopt-a-Stream program should be."


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