25 for 25: The Importance of Wetlands Protection to New Hampshire
By Thomas S. Burack, DES Commissioner
In recognition of the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services’ 25th Anniversary, over the course of the year, I will highlight 25 agency activities, programs, projects and accomplishments of the past 25 years. This article, the eighth in the series, describes the importance of wetlands protection to New Hampshire.
New Hampshire was among one of the first states in the nation to pass its own legislation to protect wetlands—those areas many call swamps, lowlands or marshes. Often regarded as wastelands, wetlands are actually very important features of the landscape that provide numerous benefits to people and wildlifeimportant enough that they have been protected since the 1960s.
In 1967, the Legislature passed the wetlands law to address tidal wetlands and surface waters. In 1969, the Legislature determined that fresh water wetlands also warranted protection. Although the statute has been revised over the years, its principal goals and focus still remain: ensuring that the exceptional diversity of wetlands that occurs across the New Hampshire landscape will continue to provide a multitude of ecological, economic and social benefits.
A wetland is a natural area that is often wet but may not be wet all year round, and is characterized by its distinctive hydrology, soils and plants. Calculating the economic value or importance provided by a single wetland is difficult. It is, however, possible to evaluate the range of services provided by all wetlands that have direct impacts on the local economy. Some of these services, or functions, include protecting and improving water quality, supporting the fishing industry, storing floodwaters and providing opportunities for education and recreation. Destroying or degrading wetlands can lead to serious consequences, such as increased flooding, extinction of species, and a decline in water quality for recreating and drinking.
The mission of the DES is to help sustain a high quality of life for all citizens by protecting and restoring the environmental and public health in New Hampshire. One key role of the department is the management and protection of wetland resources while also accommodating potential development and the growth of a strong economy. The development of land and related activities may have impacts on both the quantity and quality of wetlands and wildlife habitat. Requiring compensation for the unavoidable wetland impacts resulting from development activities has been a part of the program since the mid-1980s and prior to the Wetland Bureau joining DES in 1987, and now serves as a critical program for addressing wetland loss.
Data from 1997 to 2004 reveal that wetland loss averaged 150 acres per year. Understanding the need to offset this loss, DES developed a compensatory mitigation program that involves a process of saving natural habitat by directing development away from sensitive areas and strategically implementing wetland restoration or upland preservation of critical landscapes to counter the loss. The DES wetland mitigation program strives to maintain the valuable wetlands we still have and to restore lost or impaired wetlands where possible.
In 2004, mitigation rules were adopted that establish what an applicant is required to provide for wetland compensation. The rules spell out ratios for wetland construction, restoration of existing impaired wetlands, land acquisition and upland preservation relative to the type of wetland lost due to development. While restoration of wetland functions is preferred, due to the limited number of sustainable options, preservation of upland buffers is often a large part of a compensatory mitigation proposal. In the years following the adoption of new mitigation rules, impacts decreased to an average of 75 acres per year with a total of 220 acres of restoration/enhancement and 12,567 acres of preservation achieved.
DES continues to improve the effectiveness of the wetlands program and recently adopted a fourth form of wetlands mitigation. The Aquatic Resource Mitigation Fund Program provides permit applicants with the option to contribute payments to a special mitigation fund in lieu of implementing a site-specific compensatory mitigation alternative. On a yearly basis, DES issues a request for proposals, evaluates the proposals received, and awards grants to those projects determined to have the highest long-term environmental benefits in the specific watershed. By continually adopting improvements, such as the addition of the ARM Fund, DES has improved the operation of the program and the protection of wetlands in the state for the benefit of all of our citizens and visitors.
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