02 September 2010

Bridge Will Cause Birds to Suffer


By James E. Ducey
Guest Columnist

As officials gather in September at their "joyfest" to commemorate the start for the Highway 34 and Bellevue bridge project, it is necessary to indicate how state and federal agencies did not suitably consider its environmental consequences.

During an evaluation of project documents, wetland evaluations, site plans and impacts, at a regulatory agency meeting, through a bunch of emails, as well as - most importantly - an investigation of the bird diversity prevalent at the La Platte bottoms within the corridor, obvious shortcomings in the evaluation process became readily apparent. Certainly there were public hearings, and conservationists should have been present and expressive, but this does not mean the responsible agencies could ignore obvious facets of the site, because as I was repeatedly told, "no one told them."

Agencies involved in the process were the Iowa Department of Transportation, Nebraska Department of Roads, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Environmental Protection Agency.

Since spring this year, the lowlands near Harlan Lewis Road and La Platte Road, is an area which some may think is a watery wasteland, but has actually been a bird mecca. Many people trekking there observed the diversity, and some took documentary photographs.

During 2010, an obviously wet year, greater water levels have meant habitat suitable for 89 species, as noted from mid-March to mid-August, by a known minimum of a dozen observers, many whom have returned again and again to get a glimpse into the bird life among the watery realm. There have been 133 types of birds noted at different seasons since 1984.

Avian diversity is a profoundly obvious value of the La Platte Bottoms. Yet, the occurrence of a plethora of migratory birds was not considered at all in any of the environmental reviews document, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act.

One particular item completely ignored is the ongoing occurrence of the threatened Least Tern. It is the responsibility of the FWS to address this topic, yet they indicated in an email that the terns could not have found any food since there couldn't be any fish present due to the ephemeral nature of the wet lands. There is a picture and personal observation of a Black Tern catching fish at the bottoms. Yet the agency readily dismissed the obvious sightings by skilled birders, as well as photographic evidence.

This is but one prominent indication of a myriad of obvious shortcomings. Particular points to consider also include:

  • The Platte River received its name about 27 decades ago when French explorers floated past the confluence a voyage down the Missouri. This preeminent cultural site will now be ruined by a bridge that will dominate the visual landscape and the ceaseless noise of vehicular traffic on the highway.
  • When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued a Section 404 permit to allow filling of wetlands within the project corridor, they indicated an impact to only 4.97 acres. Its been obvious all summer that there are more acres than this present at the bottoms, based on the occurrence of water, wetland plants and waterbirds. Another agency document indicated about 20 acres would be filled, but this meant nothing in the review process.
  • Since project developers are required to mitigate for filling jurisdictional wetlands, they selected a tract of land near Oreapolis, in northern Cass County. The choice is absurd, as water conditions are only vaguely similar, and the site is adjacent to a two-track railroad right-of-way. Neither birds nor birders prefer a site regularly assaulted by the noise of passing trains.
  • Across the Missouri River in Iowa, and west of Glenwood, the pending highway will bisect the St. Marys Bend mitigation site acquired by the Corps of Engineers to provide wildlife habitat. The IDOT did purchase some acres to replace the land upon which the highway will be built, but the natural value of the entire site will be lessened by a noisy highway predominant across the floodplain.

From a birder's perspective, each of the agencies involved with the environmental review for this project no longer have any credibility to prepare an adequate review that with suitably considerations impacts on natural features important to a myriad of birds and other critters.

The prevalent intent for the La Platte Bottoms, as expressed by numerous project proponents is to establish commercial and industrial development on approximately 3000 acres near the highway and interchange; i.e. secondary impacts which are also supposed to be considered, but were not. Look at 27th Street and Interstate 80, north of Lincoln to get an indication of what most of the project proponents hope for, at the expense of most natural features.

What might the breeding birds expect in 2011? It will probably be construction equipment, constant disturbance and dirt filling their former homes. There is nothing to indicate that any of the ephemeral water habitat at the bottoms will be conserved for birds. Though the Corps of Engineers has spent tens of millions of dollars to establish mitigation habitat for wildlife along the Missouri River, an area which could be kept as it is, at basically no expense, will soon be destroyed so people can more easily drive somewhere.

Correct, yet improper, decisions have been made by numerous public officials in association with the project. Any decisions which ignored prominent information, are decisions which are completely wrong.

The information I've been able to review indicates a prevalent bias for development, with an obvious disregard of a unique wetland resource which so many birds find valuable. If birds could indicate their view, they would obviously express a dirge of mourning.

If you'd like to appreciate the wonder of birdlife about the La Platte Bottoms, get there now as the place will soon be ravaged by development.

This was an editorial in the Bellevue Leader, and as published September 1st, on page A4.