December 18, 2006

Comments to the Ohio EPA regarding the Nelsonville Bypass water permits

Bypass would devastate the very reason people come to southeast Ohio

Comments by Chad Kister, Nelsonville , Ohio

The Army Corps of Engineers and the Ohio EPA needs to deny these permits that would cause irreparable harm to critical endangered species habitat.

Imagine walking along a nice, forested creek, with massive hundred+ year old trees towering above.  Now imagine 10,000 paces walking along creeks such as Monday Creek, that is large enough to canoe through.  That is the amount of land proposed to be devastated by this bypass.  After all of the work to clean up Monday Creek, this bypass would cause massive damage to the creek, right at its most critical point, where it enters the Hocking River .

The Ohio Department of Transportation should be focusing on improving and adding to the intra and interstate rail system, as they have in Illinois where the frequencies of Amtrak service doubled in the last year.

Trains get up to 40 time better fuel efficiency per passenger mile, and are a much nicer way to travel.  Trains eliminate the need for the massive devastation caused by this proposed bypass, and are the logical way for freight to travel with their massive increase in efficiency.  With the amount of time people would save that they currently waste driving, that could be used productively on a train, the economic benefit of investing in rail far outweighs the waste on this highway just for that reason alone.

But the main reason to make this change is that by changing to trains, we can help to combat climate change, which is by far the most important issue of our time.  With the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, trains are the key to traveling in the lap of luxury while greatly reducing energy use.  As this will unquestionably be the main goal of this decade, this highway will be seen in the not-to-distant future as an absurd waste of money on the failed, gas-guzzling, wasteful interstate highway system.

With the $130 million pricetag of this project, we could have subsidized passenger rail from Charleston West Virginia to Toledo , along existing tracks, going through Athens , Nelsonville and Columbus .

Furthermore, ODOT did not consider an alternative upgrading the existing route through Nelsonville, or the idea of making a double-decker highway through the city.  This is the logical route to avoid massive destruction through the national forest.  With overpasses, timed lights and wiser use of sidestreets for business entrances, the existing route can likely be sped up to 45 miles per hour, and with the 3 mile distance, is a negligible difference in peoples travel times, and allows them time to stop to eat and enjoy the attractions of Nelsonville.

Bypass would devastate critical, known Indiana Bat habitat

ODOT admitted that they would impact the federally endangered Indiana Bat, and that the area is in the habitat area of the federally endangered American Burrowing Beatle, then threatened Bald Eagle and 27 species of concern.

In their August 8, 2003 assessment of the summer habitat for the Indiana Bat along ODOT’s Nelsonville bypass, ESI scientists Brian Balsley, R. Jeffrey Brown and Virgil Brack, Jr., PhD., found that maternity colonies of the endangered Indiana Bat use the areas along the proposed bypass.  Additionally, the study found that bats move among different roosting trees, requiring several suitable roosts within an area.

“It is not known how many alternate roosts are required to support a colony within a particular area, but large tracts of mature forest, containing large, mature trees increase the probability that suitable roost trees are preset.”

The study found that “ Indiana bats exhibit strong site fidelity to summer roosting and foraging areas, returning to the same area year after year.”

Female Indiana Bats arrive to the Wayne National Forest pregnant.  Under the protection of exfoliating bark of live or dead primarily old-growth trees, such as shagbark hickory or white oak, the endangered species rears her young.

The bats depend upon insects at the tree crowns.  With the proposed complete clear-cut of the 2,000 foot swatch through the forest, this would devastate the habitat of the Indiana Bat.

These endangered species need old growth trees, which have exfoliating bark that the bats use to raise their young.  As these bats can eat thousands of mosquitoes a day, losing the Indiana bat to extinction would just add more insult to injury that this project would leave to future generations.

Indiana Bats need streams

            The ESI report prepared for this bypass found that “ Indiana bats often use stream corridors and other linear woodland openings as flight corridors from roosts to foraging areas.”

            The report found that Indiana bat also ate wetland-dependent insects such as flies, caddisflies and stoneflies.

            Completely devastating more than 6 miles of streams and 5 acres of wetlands, while impacting miles more and acres upon acre of more, scarce, endangered wetlands will only devastate the habitat of this fast-declining specie even more.

            Some think who cares about a bat.  But we do not know what the world would be without this natural insect control.  Compared to many areas, the outdoors in southeast Ohio are surprisingly free of biting insects, largely because of species like the Indiana bat that live far off in the heights of these old trees underneath their bark.  But they come out at night and feed upon thousands of insects, insects that otherwise could be biting us, and eating the crops of our farms and gardens.

            We know the Indiana bats uses this area in abundance.  We know this would harm this endangered species.  The so-called incidental take of 10 bats is ludicrous.  This would permanently devastate a major roosting destination for the Indiana bat.  It would likely take hundreds of bats a year, and is a gross violation of the endangered species act.

            The ESI report found that maternity colonies of Indiana bats use roosts most often “in deciduous forests with large trees.”

            The conclusion of minimal impact was fundamentally flawed in many ways.  For one, the researchers looked at adjacent habitat only in terms of a closed deciduous canopy, not taking into account to age of the tree within the forest.

            To get the exfoliating bark that the Indiana bats need, trees must be quite old and large.  Nearly all of the forests in Ohio have been logged, leaving very few old-growth trees that the bats depend upon to raise their young.  The forests along the proposed bypass route contain some of the oldest trees in the region, and trees on public land that provides the best opportunity for long-term protection.

            Private lands that represent the bulk of what the ESI claims as suitable habitat in the region are fast being logged.  Also, though the report found that adjacent habitat on the Wayne National Forest is managed for the Indiana bat, the management plan for the forest calls for massive logging of most of it, leaving few if any old trees for the Indiana bats to raise their young.

            The report calls Indiana bat roosts ephemeral, because they at times use giant dead trees.  But they also use giant large trees.  And dead or alive, it takes a long time to create a giant tree, and we have fewer and fewer of such trees every year, as more and more succumb to the chainsaw.

            The report also fails to take into account the impacts that the highway would have on the adjacent habitat.  By bisecting the habitat with a major 4-lane highway with cars averaging 70+ miles per hour would be a blood-bath for feeding mother bats, if they could find suitable habitat from the large trees lost for the bypass.

            Additionally, the report found that only 3.9 percent of the total population of Indiana bats hibernate in Ohio .  This fails to take into account the fact that females travel hundreds of miles between their winter hibernation in caves to their summer roosts.  Though they travel a long distance, the bats come back to the same areas every year, making this area very important for the survival of the species.

            With a loss of more than 2,400 acres of primary roosting habitat, and the loss of stream corridors used for migration and wetlands necessary for food, this project would likely have a major impact on the bat population.  The additional loss of mine portals used by the bats, and wetlands that are also important for the species, is a violation of the Endangered Species Act, and the water permits should be denied.

            Bats have been found all up and down the proposed route for the bypass.  They were found a quarter mile from Dorr Run Road in 2000 and throughout the Dorr Run area, and in Snake Hollow, right where the bypass devastation would occur.

Indiana bats may use mine portals along route for winter hibernation

            The U.S. Forest Service captured an Indiana bat at the opening of mine portal number 15 in September, 2000.  Indiana bats use caves and mine portals in the winter to raise their young.  Newer mines close their portals after operations cease, so it is only these older mine shafts that provide habitat for these endangered species.  With the loss of natural caves to development, and fragmentation of habitat, older mine portals can be critical habitat for the Indiana bat.

            More than 9,300 bats were found in a mine in Prebble County , Ohio .  Further surveys found 4 mine portals with suitable habitat, noting that a beaver impoundment located 200 feet away “may provide a water source for many bats.”  Researchers later found 4 more portals.

            A juvenile Indiana female bat was captured in Mine portal 15 in September, 2000.  The ESI October 28, 2002 report found that “The presence of this species at the mine in autumn provides evidence that the mine is important for one or more of the following reasons: 1) it is used during migration, 2) it serves as a location for swarming, or 3) it may be suitable for hibernation.”  Portal 15 lies within segment A of the proposed bypass.      

Wetland loss would harm Indiana Bats

            The wetlands proposed to be impacted are right in prime Indiana Bat habitat, in an area with known Indiana bats.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that “wetlands and streams with well-developed wooded riparian corridors also contribute to high-quality habitat” for the Indiana bat.    

            The ESI May 15, 2003 report on Indiana bats along the proposed bypass route found that the bats used beaver ponds extensively.  “Members of the WNF team completing autumn 2002 studies indicated substantial use of nearby beaver ponds by bats,” ESI reported.  “ESI’s field team also noted these ponds received extensive use by bats while surveys were completed at the portal.”

             Of all the Athens Unit of the Wayne National forest that was extensively surveyed for Indiana bats, the only ones found were in the Dorr Run area: right where they want to put this highway.  Furthermore, they were found in a tree in a beaver pond: demonstrating the need for the very wetlands that this 401 permit would allow to be destroyed.

             Also, the Indiana bat was roosting in an area that had previously been strip mined, as is the case with some of the land considered for the bypass, shattering the argument that because there has been passed impacts there is no environmental impact of this highway.

             The forests have had decades and in many cases more than a century to recover after past strip mining.  And past strip mining, done without the massive machines of today, left more areas un-impacted and were vastly smaller than today’s mines.  Most of the land in the proposed bypass has not been strip-mined, and has some of the oldest trees on the Wayne , making it so important to the Indiana Bat.

             For the second radio-collared Indiana bat, Wayne National Forest contracted researchers found that the roost tree “is located in a beaver pond, which was built along a small stream between two strip-mined slopes.

             Of the two bats that were tracked with radio transmitters one roosted by a small stream: one of the very ones proposed to be destroyed in this permit.  The other lived in a beaver pond that would also be impacted by this project.  Even though 2 Indiana bats were tracked with radio transmitters, 6 were fitted with transmitters, why 4 were fitted without be tracked is an unanswered question in the report.  Or were they tracked and the data missing?

 The USFWS reported that the Indiana Bat was a difficult species to locate.  Thus, finding so many of them right along the bypass route indicates that likely many hundreds or even thousands exist along the route.  The area is critical for the survival of this specie, that helps to make a more insect pest free world for everyone without the use of toxic pollutants.

In June and July of 1999, the Wayne National Forest Service captured 7 Indiana bats along the route of the proposed bypass, and fitted 6 of them with radio transmitters.  The second on tracked lived in a tree in a beaver pond, demonstrating yet again the strong need that bats have for wetlands.  Massively more wetlands will be lost than the 4.69 acres mentioned in the permit.  Much of this acreage takes away the feeder stream source to much larger wetlands, affecting a far greater area than was listed in this permit.

The USFWS assumed that only 2.4 acres of wetlands would be disturbed when they made their incidental take decision.  They said that additional acreage of wetlands would significantly increase the amount of Indiana bats taken with this permit.  Thus, the permit is based upon flawed, false information, inadequately taking into account impacts on the Indiana bat.

Additionally, The Ohio Department of Transportation failed to mentioned the impacts of the construction noise, activity and pollution, as well as the runoff, noise and physical barrier that the highway would cause, bisecting critical habitat for an endangered species that has declined to half its numbers since it was listed as endangered in 1967.

Indiana Bats have been found swarming in the area

            U.S. Forest Service employee Rebecca Ewing reported that Indiana bats have been seen swarming just north of Nelsonville, along the bypass route.  They do this to mate, and generally next to where they spend there winters hibernating.  This critical fact was not considered in the incidental take permit issued by the USFWS.

Arguments that this would improve water quality are without merit

            To say that completely obliterating more than 6 miles of streams, including the great Monday Creek, would improve water quality because a small portion of those streams are partially impacted by past mining practices is a crafty twist of truth.

             These streams would be turned into culverts and drainage ditches that wholly lack the very characteristics that determine the quality of the streams.  The pH issues could be fixed by dumping loads of limestone and cleaning up gob piles and other acid mine drainage sources.

             This is supposed to be paid for, and should be paid for, by the coal industry that caused the destruction for their profits.  To use public funds to clean these up, and then say that because there is going to be some acid mine remediation work that this highway is therefore alright does not get to the fundamental issue: the massive destruction that this highway would cause.

             Those streams should be cleaned up anyway, with a tax on the coal industry that is still profiting while causing massive externality costs such as the pollution that still needs fixed more than a century after mining.

             But to completely obliterate the streams would only further degrade the watershed, and permanently devastate wildlife corridors such as Monday Creek and all of the streams that now serve as highways for endangered species.

 ODOT should fund trains, not only highways

With the inevitable switch toward train travel as oil prices rise in coming years, initially for freight, as we have already seen with recent gas prices, and ultimately with passenger travel as well, this highway will likely be unnecessary in just a decade.

 Scientists show that people are already driving less with the recent rise in gas prices.  With the massive increase in prices expected in coming years, more and more people will be switching to fuel-efficient trains and buses, making this highway through our rural region unnecessary.  But the destruction, and the impacts on endangered species would be permanent.

 By investing the $130 million dollars on passenger rail, instead of destroying our scarce public lands and contiguous forest lands, we would be investing in the choice of the future, instead of destroying the forested lands critical for sequestering greenhouse gas emissions: the number one mission of this century.

 It is a rare place on our planet today when one can gaze upon mile upon mile of forested valleys.  A 2,000 foot swatch of complete destruction would devastate the destination that has drawn so many tourists, along with thousands of jobs to this region.

 Moreover, the bypass bisects two of the largest collections of public lands in Ohio , through an area that is a critical wildlife corridor.

 Project would increase greenhouse gas emissions

 By promoting increased use of automobile and trucks with this 4-lane highway, this permit would further subsidize the massive waste of energy on our highways that is a large cause of greenhouse gas emissions.

 ODOT needs to instead be investing in train travel throughout Ohio , as a critical solution to climate change through its sheer efficiency.

 Trains are far safer than highways

            Trains are hundreds of times safer than driving.  By investing in highways, more and more people will continue to die.  To argue that this would be safer because people die on the 2-lane roads that would be replaced is a close-minded view of this issue. 

 If ODOT would invest in train travel, which people would choose more and more with rising gas prices, and the ability to do work on the train with laptops and cellphones, hundreds or thousands of lives could be saved annually in Ohio.

Increasing speeds on the highway will just increase the number of deaths.

 Bypass would hurt tourism, recreation and wildlife

By bisecting a major wildlife corridor between the two largest collections of public lands in Ohio , this would hurt tourism from hunting and recreation, as well as wildlife habitat used by endangered and threatened species.

            Ohio has the opportunity to reintroduce Elk, and possibly other species, which would be a major boost in tourism, as has been seen in Pennsylvania and West Virginia .  But by destroying the critical habitat between the large collection of public lands to the east and west of the bypass would hamper these efforts, as well as harming the existing animals living along the route, such as the black bear.\

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