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Grower banking wetlands in conservation program

Davis Minton has his own bank, and it's full of green stuff. But Minton isn't rubbing elbows with “The Donald” these days. Minton's bank is a rich vista of wildlife converted from agricultural use. And rest assured, he and his family's contributions to the environment of Dexter, Mo., will last a lot longer than any of Donald Trump's lavish hotels.

Minton is a mitigation banker, the first one ever in the United States, and hopefully, the first of more to come. His goal is to help fellow farmers who need to drain wetlands. It's a profitable venture, but the Minton family isn't in it completely for the money.

Rather, they have a passion to recreate the cypress-tupelo swamps and hardwood bottomlands of their childhood, when on stress-free afternoons, they would cast hopeful hooks into lively waters or draw a bead on a fast-moving duck.

The Mintons — Davis, his father, Keith, mother, Betty, and brother, Bradley — began their quest to create a mitigation bank when former president George H.W. Bush announced a no-net-loss wetlands policy for the United States. For agriculture, the policy meant that if a landowner drained a wetlands on one part of his land, he had to mitigate the loss by creating another wetlands somewhere else on the property.

Minton, an environmentalist with capitalist bent, figured he could use the policy to create a natural wetlands and make some money doing it. “We thought that if a farmer wanted to drain one of his wetlands, he could buy some of our property, mitigate his wetland to my property, then I could buy it back at a reduced value.

“But we found out that the surveys, the legal fees and the county fees were going to eat up whatever moneys that might have been made.”

The Mintons didn't give up. They contacted Chris Hamilton, Wetland Reserve Program coordinator with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, who told the family about a mitigation bank concept for commercial enterprises. Hamilton suggested they consider doing a pilot project for agriculture and offered his assistance.

“It took us four years to get all the agencies involved who had to sign off on it to give us a document that allowed the mitigation process to occur,” Minton said.

Assistance came from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Memphis and Little Rock districts; Environmental Protection Agency; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; NRCS; and the Missouri Department of Conservation.

The Mintons spent about $600 per acre to build the first mitigation bank for agriculture on 73 acres. No government funding offset the expense. “We brought the land full circle,” Minton said. “In the 1950s, we filled it in, cleared the bottomland, hardwood timber, graded it and farmed it for 40 years. Then to create a wetlands, we dug out the fill dirt, hewed out the ground, built the levees back and re-established the hydrology.”

The Mintons went on to build a second mitigation bank of 140 acres, open to any entity looking to mitigate wetlands. They have plans for a third bank of around 250 acres, also open to any entity.

In a nutshell, the mitigation bank for agriculture works like this, according to Minton. “If you have a piece of wetlands in a field that you want to (drain or convert to cropland), the first step would be to contact the NRCS in your district, who will come out and do a determination on how many wetlands you have. You'll have to have a 404 and a 401 certification from the Corps of Engineers.

“The Corps of Engineers will determine the ratio — how many acres of wetlands you have and how many credits you have to buy from the mitigation bank to offset the process of destroying the wetlands on your farm.

“NRCS will concur with the ratio, then you will be issued a certification. The farmer makes a payment, or credit (for the ag bank, it's $2,300, but this is not a standard fee).

“After that, you have absolved yourself of protecting that wetlands forever. It's as though it never existed on your property. Since it is a financial expense for you, it is also a tax deduction, so there is some offset to the credit.”

“It's good for the resource, too,” Hamilton added, “because you mitigate to a wetlands complex versus a single piece of land in the corner of a field where a lot of farmers don't have the management capabilities to deal with it.”

When mitigated acres from all sources reach the number of acres in the bank, the bank is considered full, and it cannot offer further mitigation.

It's also important that anyone considering building a mitigation bank first determine that mitigation opportunities exist, according to Minton.

NRCS chief Bruce Knight, touring the Minton farm as part of the Bush Administration's Earth Day activities, called the bank, “a landmark effort of how to go to the next level on conservation.

“There is a lot of interest throughout the Administration in voluntary wetlands solutions,” Knight said. “What is wonderful about this is that no regulation is saying you have to do this. The next generation of conservation is going to have to incorporate trading concepts, the ability for us as an agency to not just provide cost-share assistance, but also help insure that trades can occur.”

Mitigation banks can be created for other purposes, too, according to Knight. “If there is a need to do those same sorts of trades for water quality and air quality, it's incumbent upon this agency to facilitate those things.”

The Minton's wetlands complex still has a way to go before it matures into the setting that Minton remembers, although shovelers, blue-wing teal, a few pairs of nesting mallards, Canada geese and bald eagles inhabit the area already.

“What you see is the first step in the reclamation of the landscape back to what it originally was — a cypress and hardwood timber system,” Minton said.

The family also has a farming operation of 5,000 acres and raise rice, corn, soybeans, wheat and sunflowers. Conservation is a high priority there too. “We do precision land leveling, underground pipe to make sure that water is delivered to the site in the most economical and practical means.

“We are involved in a tailwater recovery system, so any water that runs off the farm, we can pick up and reuse. We use surge value irrigation, which allows us to water fields at a much more effective pace, using less water and less fuel. We use irrigation drop pipes and permanent outside levees around most of our farming operation.

“The whole concept of the mitigation bank is a passion,” said Minton, “a belief that something better could be done with the land, that there were alternative land uses that could make a viable economic impact on our farming operation.

“The only way our program can be a success is that it has to be economically and politically successful and environmentally sound. If you fail in any one of those three, the process will break down.

“I'm committed to this,” said Minton. “I pulled the farm out of production because somebody had to commit. Somebody had to be the first.”


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