County first in state to successfully use wetland banking

EVERETT — For 10 years, people have enjoyed walks through shady woods, across bridges over ponds, because of what seems like a vague bureaucratic notion called “wetland banking.”

The Narbeck Wetlands Sanctuary at 6921 Seaway Blvd. in west Everett is frequented by Boeing employees, ducks and geese.

“It’s really busy at lunchtime,” said Jim Maynard of the Friends of Narbeck, a nonprofit group that keeps tabs on the park.

The 50-acre site, and the 13-acre Swanson Wetland at the south end of Paine Field, were established in the late 1990s by Snohomish County, which owns and operates Paine Field. It spent more than $6 million to build the new wetlands before it removed several small wetlands on airport property for runway safety projects. Creating new wetlands before developing on others is called “banking.”

The county was commended by three federal and state agencies Wednesday as the first in the state to successfully use the banking concept for wetlands.

Committing money and space to creating new wetland areas before taking out others demonstrates that the lost environment will actually be replaced, said Bill Lewallen, an airport deputy director.

This doesn’t always happen with other methods, he said. These include simply requiring that the wetlands be replaced later, or having the builder pay a fee for nonprofit organizations to do it.

Under the agreement with regulatory agencies, the areas had to be monitored for 10 years to ensure that they met the standard for high-quality, functioning wetlands. They got that official confirmation Wednesday from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers and the state Department of Ecology.

Six other jurisdictions have built have wetlands under a banking program, but they’ve yet to be certified, said Josh Baldi of the Department of Ecology.

The concept was new and untested in the mid-1990s, when airport managers first wanted to do it. Paine Field officials knew they’d have to take out small wetlands to make space for runway safety areas, where planes in trouble can overrun the pavement yet still stay on level ground.

When they began to explore ideas, it was a bumpy ride.

“I was told, ‘Don’t touch those wetlands,’ ” airport director Dave Waggoner recalled. “There was a click on the other end of the phone.”

Lewallen is given much of the credit for navigating the maze of red tape to get the deal done. Because of his work on the project, Waggoner has nicknamed him “the Frogfather.”

“This was a very collaborative, community project,” Lewallen said. “There were hundreds of people involved besides myself.”

The wetlands were designed by outside firms with expertise in the field. The Narbeck site was a mix of wetlands, trees, roads and a dumping ground. Part of it was owned by the Fluke Corp., part was owned by Snoho­mish County PUD.

It’s not right next to the airport, but recreated wetlands with open water can’t be too close to airport runways anyway because ducks and geese can cause dangerous problems when they’re sucked through jet engines.

The site was graded with swales to help pools form. The collected water, combined with that already there, created a stream. Larger trees were left alone, and more native plants and trees were planted.

More than 300 volunteers, including Boeing employees, helped put them in the ground. In pictures, “you can see managers of the 777 program on their hands and knees in a downpour of rain,” Lewallen said.

The park contains two trails, a small loop trail and a 1 1/2-mile trail around the perimeter, both with educational signs and self-guided tours.

At the south end of the main Paine Field runway, a piece of open land behind a row of strip malls along the Mukilteo Speedway was turned into the Swanson Wetland.

Swanson has no open water because it’s just off the end of the runway. Its open, central area is dominated by cattails, ringed by smaller native trees and undergrowth. The water is 2 feet deep at most, and draws songbirds, insects and small critters such as muskrats.

“The last thing you want to do is attract birds and large mammals when you’ve got planes coming and going,” said consultant Sarah Spear Cooke, who designed the wetland and keeps tabs on it today.

The Swanson Wetland is fenced off and not open to the public because of its proximity to the runway.

The 63-plus acres in new wetlands far exceeds the amount that was eliminated, Cooke said. This has given the airport extra “credits” it can use to remove some of the remaining smaller wetlands it might need for Boeing or other projects, Lewallen said.

Still, the airport might eventually need to create another new wetland, but that’s a ways off, he said.

Reporter Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439 or

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