The Bay Program wants to get local citizens and governments to play a bigger role in accomplishing something state and federal agencies have not: halting the loss of wetlands.

 

A new "Wetlands Initiative" is intended to help people at the local level identify and protect important wetland areas before they are threatened by development. The initiative is not designed to replace existing regulatory programs, but to find areas that should get additional protection.

The initiative has grown from a realization by scientists, regulators and others that traditional regulatory programs by themselves are unlikely to achieve the Bay Program's goal of a "no net loss" for wetlands, much less its eventual objective of an increase in wetland acreage.

"Even with fairly rigorous regulatory oversight, there is still a continued - and in some cases an inevitable - loss of the resource," said Carl Hershner, a wetlands scientist at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science who chairs the Bay Program's Wetlands Workgroup.

Some wetlands are lost through natural processes, such as rising water levels which drown adjacent wetlands faster than new ones are created.

And even the regulatory programs designed to protect wetlands typically allow small plots to be destroyed without replacement. Hershner said state and federal regulatory programs - which have no control over local land use planning - are often hampered because regulators typically become involved after someone already is planning an action that will impact a wetland.

"By then, people are already pretty far down the process path in developing a piece of land," he said. "Then regulations kick in and force a review of those plans and a minimization of the impacts wherever possible."

Protection efforts are further compromised because regulatory programs look only at wetlands themselves - not adjacent land uses which may interact with wetlands. "Increasingly," Hershner said, "we understand that wetland benefits are derived through their position in the landscape, so we need to plan outside the wetland area itself."

For example, if the wetland was habitat for birds or animals living in an adjacent forest which is lost to development, it may no longer provide that service. Likewise, if the wetland is important for filtering water from the adjacent land, that function may be diminished if the land use changes.

But protecting adjacent areas depends on planning by local governments, which control land use. The Wetlands Initiative is aimed at putting technical information into the hands of local governments, watershed organizations and others to help them identify and protect wetlands through non-regulatory means.

"The rationale behind it is that anything we can do to get more technical guidance incorporated at the earliest stages of planning, the better off the resource is going to be in the long run," Hershner said.

In short, the goal is to use planning to halt wetland losses before they start.

Technical specialists are working to develop "protocols" to help people identify eight main types of wetlands and the major functions associated with each wetland type, such as habitat, water quality, flood buffering, or erosion and sediment control. The protocols then go a step further to offer general insight about how those functions may change depending on the location of the wetland and adjacent land uses. For example, how well a forested wetland improves water quality or provides habitat may vary depending whether the adjacent land is a pasture, cropped field or subdivision.

With the protocols in hand, people will have an important tool to help identify wetlands which provide important functions that help achieve local goals, whether those goals are to expand recreational opportunities, improve water quality, enhance flood control or something else.

Then, officials can build those wetlands into local plans, giving them protection through zoning, purchase, easements or other mechanisms. By touching adjacent lands, those actions may extend beyond protections they would get from normal regulatory programs.

Wetlands that local governments do not build into their planning process would still be protected under state and federal regulatory programs.

"This effort doesn't mean that they are not valuable, and they do not provide some service or they are not of interest to regulatory agencies," Hershner said. "All we're doing is trying to give some guidance to help pick the ones that you don't want to ever enter the regulatory process. You don't want to be proposing to do anything near them that would raise a regulatory issue."

Still, the program may raise concerns that it is a "classification" system which attempts to rank the value of wetlands. Environmental groups have long opposed any system that indicates some wetlands are more valuable than others out of concern that any deemed "less" valuable would be more easily developed. Developers have tended to support classification systems for the same reason.

But Bay Program officials insist the initiative is intended to identify wetlands that would receive additional protection, not less.

"If you are afraid to do anything to protect wetlands for fear that it results in someone saying you're classifying, then no one's going to protect any wetlands anywhere," said Bill Matuszeski, director of the EPA's Chesapeake Bay Program Office. "It's something that has to go ahead if we are going to reach the wetland commitments that we have agreed to meet."

The plan has been endorsed by EPA Administrator Carol Browner, and EPA Region III is expected to spend about $100,000 a year in staff and other support for the initiative.

"We certainly are losing wetlands at a rate that cannot be maintained if we are to restore and protect the Bay," said Mike McCabe, administrator of EPA Region III, which includes all the Bay states.

Officials hope to choose three interested watersheds to participate in a pilot project this summer. More detailed protocols would then be developed. Ultimately, a series of protocols would be developed for use by local governments with different levels of technical expertise.

"We don't envision this ever becoming a one-size-fits-all," Hershner said. "The hope is that the tool will not only be useful, but desirable at the local level."