Effective advocacy for wetlands protection involves two different kinds of activity
Making sure that wetlands-disturbing permit applications are focused on environmental values. This involves researching the permit applications and presenting well-timed and well-informed critiques of permit applications to permitting agencies.
Organizing grassroots resistance to wetlands-disturbing activities
This is how Wetlands Watch started its work in 1999!
Get Involved Early
Protecting wetlands begins with land use decisions: in most cases, once land has been rezoned for development, the wetlands-disturbing permits will be issued
Keep in constant contact with local planning department officials regarding the land you want to keep open. Let them know that you are watching and interested in any zoning or land use decision regarding that land.
Watch for postings of rezoning hearings or planning commission hearings regarding the use of that land. There will be physical postings of signs on the property as well as notices in the local paper or in the agenda of the local government planning commission.
Get involved in local government comprehensive land use reviews. Each Virginia locality has to review their long-range land use plans at least every five years. These planning processes are the best way to keep critical wetlands out of harms way.
Learn About Wetlands and Legal Protections
Learn about wetlands, the benefits they provide, where they are found, and how to tell what a wetlands is. Locate wetlands in your area.
Learn about wetlands laws and regulations – remember these parts of our landscape are so valuable that laws have been passed to protect wetlands. However, it takes some work to understand the wetlands laws and regulations and how to use them to protect wetlands.
Learn how to get involved in legal decisions on wetlands so you can be more effective.
Join With Others To Protect Wetlands
Find others in your community who care about wetlands. Make wetlands protection a part of organizations to which you belong – civic leagues, service organizations, religious organizations,and the like.
There are many federal, state and local laws that are intended to protect and conserve wetlands. Why protect wetlands? Because we depend upon them for so much. Virginians are dependent on wetlands, mudflats and underwater grasses as much as plants and animals are and we need the benefits that wetlands provide.
Laws and regulations recognize that wetlands provide millions of dollars a year of free benefits, in the form of fish and shellfish habitat, scrubbing the water of excess nutrients, sediment, and other pollutants, flood and erosion protection and lots of other things detailed on our website – did we mention these are free benefits?
Many of us who spend time in and around wetlands simply appreciate the beauty and wonder of these special parts of our environment, and we do what we can to protect these areas from inappropriate development.
Federal, state, and local regulations provide ways to protect wetlands. Anyone seeking to disrupt wetlands needs to get a permit before they can dig, dredge, or build in or near a wetland. See Wetlands Laws and Regulations for more information
Wetlands permits seek to strike a balance between the protection of wetlands and the economic gain coming from development. A permit can only be issued if the economic advantages of the permitted activities outweigh their costs to the environment. In addition, regulators are supposed to take into account ALL of the development that has taken place nearby, so that the cumulative impact of a proposed development is considered.
Usually, the only parties to the permitting process are the permit applicant (usually a developer or homeowner) and regulatory agency staff member. The regulators are burdened by having two conflicting objectives: to protect the environment and to serve the permit applicant. It is easy to see that, with the permit applicant pushing hard for his or her permit, environmental protection can suffer. In addition, there are economic and political pressures on regulators to issue permits expeditiously.
That is why we need advocacy for wetlands protection. Without advocacy, the regulatory system is like a stool with two legs. It cannot fulfill its function, which is to balance individual property rights with the community’s right to a healthy environment. Advocacy is the “third leg of the stool."
In trying to balance costs and benefits, the regulatory system is set up to be adversarial. The regulatory system best protects environmental interests when the regulator is pressed by the person wanting to disturb the wetland on one hand and an advocate for conservation and recreation needs on the other. Unless wetlands advocates are willing to study how the wetlands regulatory system works and become part of the decision making, the system cannot adequately protect wetlands.
It is also important to start early with advocacy work, well before a permit application is filed. protecting wetlands starts with land use decisions. Too often, when the land use has changed, the wetland permit will be issued.
For those special places along the water, you need to keep an eye out for land-use changes and rezonings. These will be posted on the land in question before the local government holds hearings on the land use change. You can keep in touch with your local planning department to keep an eye out for those changes as well, especially if you hear that development plans for a favorite piece of land are in the works.
Remember that the regulatory process balances environmental benefits against economic gains and most permits require avoiding damage “to the extent practicable.” What this means in effect is once a land has been zoned for development, it gets harder and harder to strike an environmentally sound balance. The economic gain becomes more important as a person’s right to develop the land is approved by local planning departments.
So start early and keep your eyes on the land that is important to you.
Remember: “In the absence of adequate funding and staffing, Virginia relies on everyday citizens to oversee its most significant piece of environmental legislation. This requires a corps of volunteers observant enough to know something is wrong, aggressive enough to delve into complex regulations, and persistent enough to combat an often-hostile bureaucracy.”
Virginian Pilot, July 30, 2001, “Failed Law Fails the Chesapeake Bay”
NOTE: This website focuses on advocacy for Virginia wetlands. But the information presented here can be helpful to wetlands advocates in other states as well.