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State helps trees, wetlands along new I-69

– State contractors are planting thousands of trees and reclaiming previously drained southern Indiana wetlands to make up for the environmental damage caused by construction of the $3 billion Interstate 69 extension.

The Indiana Department of Transportation’s federally required mitigation plan includes planting about 332,000 trees and protecting another 690,000 trees along a 27-mile section of the highway being built in Greene and Monroe counties. The stretch is scheduled to open during late 2014 and 2015. The first 67 miles of the 142-mile Evansville-to-Indianapolis highway opened in November.

INDOT spokesman Will Wingfield told The Herald-Times the state agency is spending about $30 million on environmental mitigation efforts that cover 4,100 acres of streams, wetlands and forests. That includes land the state has purchased over four caves that are the natural habitat of the federally endangered Indiana bat. Those land purchases are intended to protect about 34,000 of the mouse-sized bat species.

I-69’s opponents have said the highway’s path through Greene and Monroe counties – a rugged, wooded area filled with caves, springs and sinkholes – will harm sensitive ecosystems that harbor populations of the Indiana bat.

Wingfield said the mitigation work is being done in conservation easements, some on private property where the owners have agreed to never develop the land.

“They are perpetual agreements and cannot be changed even if the land is sold,” he said.

A steep hillside not far from a clear-cut swath of trees in Greene County has been planted with chinkapin oak, tulip poplar, maple and black walnut saplings supported by bamboo poles. Eventually, those knee-high saplings will grow into a forest to help replace trees lost to the highway project.

During a Wednesday media tour of some of the mitigation work, officials led reporters and television crews through a 6-acre site that was once wetlands but was drained long ago to grow corn and soybeans. They’re returning that to wetlands and replanting trees in 24 surrounding acres, while another 157 acres of forest have been preserved nearby.

Trees felled for the highway are stacked in the cleared areas, but they will be ground down into mulch and used to help stop erosion during the construction process.

Indiana’s mitigation projects are being orchestrated as part of agreements or permits with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies.