In recent years when airports from Alaska to North Carolina have considered expansion of buildings and runways, they've run into opposition from federal regulators and environmental groups concerned about the effect on nearby fragile wetlands.
Not all of the projects proceeded.Wednesday, however, local and federal officials called the new 465 acres of man-made wetlands, created to replace marshland covered over by a new runway at the Salt Lake International Airport, a "model" for balancing environmental concerns and development needs.
"We are on the cutting edge in the nation in getting this project done," said Salt Lake Mayor Deedee Corradini.
The new waterfowl sanctuary is located about three miles northwest of the main airport terminal and some 10,000 feet from the site where tons and tons of fill are being dumped for the airport's third runway.
Explosive growth in airport traffic has necessitated the new runway. Without the runway, the airport could experience long and expensive delays for aircraft, said Louis Miller, airport executive director.
The project is billed as one of the largest artificial wetlands projects ever completed in the United States. Representatives of local, state and federal governments praised both how the project avoided confrontation between regulators and environmentalists and its design and construction.
At the same time it wasn't easy. Miller remembered calling the Environmental Protection Agency and being told it wouldn't happen. Bob Mairley, a life scientist at EPA, said his agency had first considered telling the airport authority to find a new location for the airport.
However, after years of meetings with environmental groups and 35 federal and state agencies, the project was approved. Unlike some projects around the country, there was little opposition when federal agencies announced their approval. Officials credited the airport's planning efforts as the reason.
"I hope this project develops as a model for various sites throughout the United States," said Cynthia Rich, assistant administrator for airports with the Federal Aviation Administration.
The project, begun in 1992, is home to 135 acres of open-water habitat, 110 acres of mud flats and 135 acres of marsh. The project cost $12 million, with $4 million alone used to purchase some 1,400 acres of land.
The area is habitat to a wide range of birds. Some 4,000 waterfowl and nearly 500 shorebirds have been counted on a single day, said Bruce Erikson, project manager with Sear-Brown Engineering Consultants.
To closely duplicate the lost wetlands and rapidly vegetate the area, more than 200 pounds of marsh and wet meadow seeds were selected from the original site. Nearly 400 acres were seeded along with other plantings.
Don Dennis, an official with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said the wetlands are already exceeding expectations for attracting waterfowl and other animals.
"These wetlands are the country's kidneys," said Rep. Karen Shepherd, D-Utah, emphasizing the role that they play in filtering and cleansing water that eventually filters into acquifers under the Salt Lake Valley.
Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, whose district includes the airport, said the project had struck an important balance between the needs of the aviation industry and duck hunters and other sportsmen.
"It looks like it (the wetlands project) has covered both sides," Hansen said.