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Watching wetlands from the sky

A recent flyover of Wadena County by local conservation officials will help locate wetland violations and educate land owners, according to Molly Costin, Wadena Soil and Water district technician.

Costin and Tom Pfingsten, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources conservation officer pilot, performed the flyover in search of wetlands that have been disturbed.

Minnesota is striving for no net loss of wetlands, Pfingsten said. Searching for wetland and water impacts during the flyovers is part of that goal.

The flyovers started in earnest last year, he said. Previously, DNR officials looked for impacts while flying on other missions.

This is the first time Wadena County has been observed this way, he said. The county has a lot of wetlands and there had been quite a few impacts in the limited area of the county he and Costin covered.

During the trip Costin observed where soil had been disturbed in wetlands, she said. Due to the sandy soil in Wadena, areas of land that have been dug up or disturbed appear lighter, making them identifiable from the air.

"I'd say there's going to be 20 or more [possible violations] that I need to research," Costin said about her findings.

Over the next couple of weeks Costin or a local conservation officer will contact landowners who have potential violations, she said. The landowners will have a chance to explain the project they're working on.

"It may not be a violation," she said. "We need to figure that out first."

Some of the potential violation sites will have to be "ground-truthed," she said. "From the air it might look different than what it is on the ground."

In addition to locating violations, the flyover serves as an educational tool, Costin said.

"A lot of times, even if it isn't a violation, it's nice to talk to the landowners so they understand the process they're supposed to go through to get approval for a project like that," she said.

The number one thing landowners need to do is just talk to her, she said.

Projects involving any soil that is moved in a wetland, whether it is fill or excavation, should be discussed with her before proceeding, she said. If people come in and describe the project they want to do she can use aerial photography or a site visit to determine the type of wetland involved and the exemption status.

"In most situations projects are OK'd," Costin said.

A technical evaluation panel consisting of members of the DNR, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources decide if the project meets exemption standards, she said.

Wadena County has greater than 80 percent of its natural wetlands remaining, she said. That means it's easier to obtain exemptions for projects here than it is in areas like southern Minnesota with less than 50 percent of its natural wetlands.

Compared to the rest of the state, Wadena County wetlands are doing well, Costin said. They are still declining, however.

Preserving wetlands is important because they help filter drinking water, assist with floodwater retention, supply wildlife habitat, reduce runoff and provide recreational opportunities for canoers and hunters, she said.

Costin works with the Wetland Conservation Act with the BWSR as overseer, she said. Wadena County is a delegated county so the SWCD handles most of the regulatory side.

Penalties for violations range from the issuance of a cease and desist order to more severe consequences. The harshest penalty requires landowners to restore the land to the way it was, she said.

The easiest thing for everyone involved is to talk to her before beginning a project, Costin said. It's more cost effective and generally creates a nicer atmosphere.

There are occasionally repeat offenders, she said. But most of the time people try to follow the process once they are aware of what it is.

"Wadena County has generally got really good people here," she said. "They want to do things right."