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Airport goes batty on environmental mitigation: Cost of buying new land for bat habitat is triple estimates, on top of $21.6 million spent since early 1990s

May 9, 2005

The cost of replacing Indiana bat habitat bulldozed to build an Interstate 70 entrance to the midfield airport terminal has tripled from original estimates.

The Indianapolis Airport Authority has spent $1.3 million buying new roosting land for the endangered bat, up from a $475,000 estimate published in the Authority's justreleased annual report.

That's on top of $21.6 million in other environmental mitigation projects at Indianapolis International Airport involving bats and wetlands since the early 1990s.

That amount is roughly equivalent to an entire year's revenue from all the airport's parking lots. Federal funds picked up 28 percent, or $6 million, of the $21.6 million.

The I-70/Six Points Road interchange project completed earlier this year provides an entrance to a midfield terminal to open in 2008.

Moving and sinking I-70 by several feet allows room for FedEx to expand its cargo hub and for the construction of an aircraft bridge to a future third runway, south of the interstate.

To accommodate the bat-and state and federal environmental regulators-the airport bought 130 acres of new roosting land off of Camby Road, about eight miles southwest of the airport.

The land is next to 1,600 acres of conservation area the Authority started to accumulate for bats and wetland displaced by the former United Airlines aircraft maintenance base in the early 1990s.

Land bought for bats booted by the highway project cost more than expected because a landowner insisted the airport purchase an entire parcel rather than a piece the airport wanted, said Dennis Rosebrough, spokesman for airport management firm BAA Indianapolis.

The Authority agreed with environmental regulators to plant hundreds of acres of new hardwoods for the bats and must monitor their population. Previous studies found nine species of bats in the area.

Most of the cost of environmental mitigation at the airport comes from the Authority's capital improvement budget, funded partly by passengers. Those who bought a burger, magazine, parking space, ticket or booze at the terminal helped house a bat.

Much of the remediation has been about the Indiana bat since the early 1990s, when United Airlines started work on a gigantic aircraft repair base at the airport.

The wee creature nearly shut down the $800 million project. Scores of bat experts were called in to figure out where to put them after their homes of shagbark hickory snag and dead eastern cottonwood were bulldozed.

The Airport Authority found a home for the bats and a replacement for 100 acres of wetlands it disturbed. There, the bats divebomb White Lick Creek for insects and return home to 1,500 bat houses hung in trees. Others, especially the picky Indiana brown bat, prefer their natural habitat-snuggling under tree bark. "These guys are pretty little. They're about the size of your thumb," Rosebrough said.

Little but costly. Airport officials said they've strived to be as efficient as possible. The Airport Authority now owns one of the largest agricultural operations in Marion County. On a footprint about the size of the city of Lebanon it has planted over a quartermillion trees of 55 species.

For now, at least, the Authority is finished buying conservation land.

"I hesitate to say it is the end because additional development may necessitate additional environmental mitigation," Rosebrough said.

He said the airport had no choice when it came to protecting wetlands and the bats: "Those laws were passed by Congress and to protect endangered species and that's what we had to do."

Years ago, the Airport Authority was proactive in exploring a conservation project even before it had proof endangered bats were on its property, said Tim Maloney, executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council.

Not all governmental agencies have been so concerned with conservation, he said, pointing to failure of the state recently to commit funding for farmland preservation, for example. Farms increasingly are being sold to developers who scrape away topsoil and trees and plant acres of vinyl-sided houses.
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