West Eugene Wetlands
June 2006: last gasp?
West Eugene Parkway - or Parklands?
by Mark Robinowitz
The Runoff (Many Rivers Sierra Club newsletter, Summer 2002)
In July, Eugene, Springfield, Lane County and Lane Transit District amended the West Eugene Wetlands Plan, TransPlan, Metro Plan and Rural Plan to include the West Eugene Parkway, a bypass of the West 11th commercial strip. But approval at the local level does not necessarily mean that it will be built like all federal aid highways, the ultimate decision will be made by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). Some of the hurdles blocking the bulldozers include Oregons land use laws (which prohibit new urban freeways outside urban growth boundaries), the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, FHWA regulations regarding highway approval, the Clean Water Act, and Section 4(f) of the Transportation Act (which prohibits federally funded roads through parks and wildlife refuges).
The Wetlands Plan was established a decade ago to deregulate wetland protection in west Eugene under the guise of mitigation. Its sponsors claim that it provides "balance" between preservation and destruction, allowing continued industrial development in wetlands while protecting critical habitats.
In the mid-1980s, while planning the WEP and building sewers to facilitate sprawl, the City realized that much of west Eugene was wetlands and difficult to develop. The Wetlands Plan was crafted to make it easier for developers to get permission to destroy remnant ecosystems, since the City established a "mitigation bank" to compensate for the loss of wetlands, which assumed the responsibility for mitigating the damage done by businesses like Hyundai.
Most of west Eugenes wetlands are wet prairies, which are seasonally inundated yet completely dry in the summer. It is estimated that only 1/1,000th of the original ecosystem remains in the Willamette Valley, making it far more rare than oak savannahs or even old growth conifers. It is so scarce that when initial studies on wet prairies were conducted in the 1960s and 1970s there was only one site known (Finley Refuge near Corvallis).
Before the construction of dams and drainage systems, much of the Willamette Valley floor was underwater in the wintertime, which prevented forests from encroaching. In the summer, undammed rivers reached much lower levels than today, which would prevent their use as sewers for our toilets and industries.
The rare plants in the west Eugene wetlands refuge are dependent on this delicate cycle of wet and dry, and are dependent on a narrow range of hydrology. Any drier, and the wet prairie ceases to be seasonally flooded. Any wetter, and the type of wetland shifts toward marsh and swamp.
Over the past decade, the Bureau of Land Management has spent over $12 million to acquire, protect and restore native wet prairie remnants in the west Eugene area, part of a cooperative effort with local governments, nonprofits and other federal agencies. In total, about $20 million has been spent on the West Eugene Wetlands project. These efforts have included undoing the channelization of Amazon Creek, native seed propagation, and environmental education efforts.
Despite these successes, local developer interests and the Oregon Department of Transportation have sought for decades to build a freeway through the heart of these natural areas. The highway would puncture Eugenes urban growth boundary in the direction of the burgeoning suburb of Veneta, fueling further "Californication" of the southern Willamette Valley.
For the WEP to be built, the BLM must provide a "waiver" for use of these lands bought with Land and Water Conservation Funds. The BLM is on record that they could only consider a waiver if full funding of the highway is available.
Parkway promoters claim that it would cost $88.5 million, and the local governments have now modified the regional "TransPlan" to allocate this much money for the WEP over the next 20 years. However, the TransPlan amendments made in July effectively canceled the Beltline / WEP grade-separated interchange ($17 million) to fund the WEP. ODOT is on record stating the interchange would be needed for the WEP to work, so this change violates federal highway standards on "segmentation" and "independent utility."
In addition, the $88.5 million figure ignores inflation, road-widenings to accommodate WEP induced traffic increases, the future extensions across Fern Ridge to Veneta ($13.319 million) and to the I-105 Washington / Jefferson bridge. My conservative estimate is that the full West Eugene Parkway would cost at least $150 million, more than ODOT plans to spend on new highways in Eugene / Springfield over the next two decades.
Please contact Senators Wyden and Smith, and Rep. DeFazio to urge them not to "earmark"funds for the parkway or promote "riders" that would exempt the project from environmental laws.
Mark Robinowitz is a "road scholar" who has a website about the "porkway" at www.permatopia.com/wetlands.html
“The proposed highway would introduce visual, auditory
and olfactory influences to the wetlands environment that appear to be
inconsistent with the BLM’s management objectives for this area
as described under the West Eugene Wetlands Plan. The Final Supplemental
EIS discusses noise levels in terms that seem inconsistent with experience.
The claim that noise will not be significant affect beyond a short distance
from the highway centerline, especially given the fact that the Amazon
canal overpass structure will require a grade on either side resulting
in increased motor vehicle engine noise and increased heavy truck engine
breaking noise, seems to have been largely ignored in this document. The
ability of visitors and school classes to enjoy the wetland’s natural
features to communicate with one another at the interpretive outlooks
and environmental education sites will be interfered with by traffic noise
on the parkway. The noise combined with the visual affect of automobiles
and large trucks passing on the parkway will substantially affect the
visitor’s experience opportunities in the wetlands.”