The Legislature’s Committee on Natural Resources has worked over the years to build on our predecessors’s work to advance a reasoned and commonsense approach to environmental conservation and public health protection.
The Natural Resources Protection Act, enacted in 1987, has provided protections for special habitats, such as lakes, wetlands, streams and sand dunes, and for restoration of rivers once they were polluted.
Ten years ago the Legislature began a careful process to identify several types of “significant” wetland habitats that are at risk. Across America and here in Maine, small wooded wetlands are routinely lost to development, as noted in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s latest “Status and Trends Report.”
Despite these habitat losses, Maine is blessed with intertidal areas that provide essential habitats for many shorebirds and coastal wading birds and waterfowl. Many species, including plovers, sandpipers, herons and sea ducks, rely on specific coastal areas for critical feeding, roosting, and nesting. For some wading and waterfowl species, inland wetland areas are integral to their continued success.
While most citizens know a wetland when they see one, “vernal pools” may seem new to the environmental vocabulary. What are they and why should we care?
Often isolated, vernal pools are the smallest of wetlands. They are natural, temporary to semi-permanent bodies of water contained in a shallow depression that typically fills with rainwater and snow melt during the winter and spring. They may even dry out in the summer.
The pools have no permanent outlet and no viable population of fish (which makes life easier for frogs and salamanders).
Last year, the Legislature determined that some of these vernal pools were “significant” and worthy of additional protection. Whether a pool is significant is determined by the number and type of pool-breeding amphibian egg masses that are present or by its use by threatened or endangered species. These pools provide primary breeding areas for wood frogs, salamanders, and turtles.
Based on years of scientific study, biologists at the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Department have established criteria that identify moderate- to high-value wetland habitats and significant vernal pools.
Since then, extensive public hearing discussions about protective rules have taken place with small woodlot owners, developers, municipal officials and other interests.
Recognizing the value of this habitat for ducks and other game and nongame species, sportsmen have testified in support of protecting vernal pools and wading bird habitats.
Subsequently, the state Board of Environmental Protection has unanimously approved the rules designed to govern development in significant vernal pool habitats.
Educational materials are now available and workshops and training sessions are being offered to local landowners, developers and citizens to describe the characteristics of significant habitats and explain the rules.
At no cost to a landowner, Department of Environmental Protection staff will examine wetlands and vernal pools to determine if they meet the standard for significant habitat. Staff will provide a written recommendation as to how to approach development on a parcel on which these types of habitat exist.
We are confident that the criteria defining these wetlands will be user-friendly for citizens and professionals alike. The rules will not impose unnecessary burdens on landowners intending to develop their property or require landowners to hire experts to assist them with their development plans.
In particular, the rules are designed so that development can be designed to coexist with vernal pools. The rules establish a 250-foot area surrounding the pools within which development activities should take care to protect the habitat.
With a permit, development is not prohibited adjacent to the significant vernal pools, providing that the pool is protected along with adjacent habitat used by wildlife.
These are the same regulations that have guided development near wetlands for years in Maine and across the country.
To be successful, the rules are based on common sense and provide a reasonable accommodation to human uses. We think these protections effectively balance environmental stewardship and respect for landowner goals.