Protecting Coastal Wetlands and Coastal Landforms: Training the Decision Makers

by Judith E. McDowell, WHOI Sea Grant

As we drive along the shore or explore a coastal habitat, the legal complications of managing such complex systems are generally far from our thoughts. Not so for volunteer members of coastal conservation commissions who must manage fragile coastal wetland systems and meet the competing demands of real estate developers, builders, and naturalists. Do these commissions possess sufficient technical information to tackle such a demanding job? That is one concern that the Massachusetts Coastal Training Program (CTP), in partnership with the Massachusetts Association of Conservation Commissions, hopes to address.

Salt marsh fleet in Wellfleet Harbor.
- Photo by Jim O'Connell, WHOI Sea Grant

The Massachusetts CTP is a partnership between Waquoit Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (WBNERR), the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management, and Woods Hole Sea Grant. MA CTP provides training and needs assessments for coastal communities and decision makers in an effort to integrate the latest research results with coastal decision-making. One recent assessment focused on the needs of coastal conservation commissions-local groups that must make critical decisions on wetlands management, including beach and dune protection, barrier beaches, coastal banks, and a myriad of other coastal issues. That assessment indicated that critical technical information about statutes and regulations pertaining to coastal wetlands, landforms and habitats was not readily available to coastal conservation commissions. So when the National Sea Grant Law Center sought proposals for legal research and outreach projects, Woods Hole Sea Grant viewed this as an ideal opportunity to develop a series of modules for training coastal conservation commissioners.

There are 78 coastal communities within Massachusetts. Conservation commissions within these communities are the key decision makers for managing resources such as salt marshes, shellfish beds, beaches and dunes. Under the Massachusetts Wetlands Protection Act, local commissions have permitting authority over all construction projects in or near wetlands, including coastal wetlands. The definition of coastal wetlands in the act includes, coastal beaches, coastal dunes, barrier beaches, coastal banks, rocky intertidal shores, and salt marshes. Citizen volunteers with varying backgrounds and expertise usually serve on conservation commissions. Yet, they must make decisions that integrate the legal, scientific, economic and engineering complexities of each project within the context of overlapping federal, state and local regulations.

The Massachusetts Association of Conservation Commissions (MACC) offers a course, Fundamentals for Conservation Commissioners, for all conservation commissioners throughout Massachusetts. The certification course consists of eight separate modules that cover such diverse topics as responsibilities and operations for conservation commissions; open space planning, protection and management; and wetlands and wetlands permitting. There is little information, however, on unique aspects of coastal wetlands, as the course focuses mainly on freshwater wetlands regulations and other issues related to fresh water habitats. As one of the 11 projects through the National Sea Grant Law Center, WHOI Sea Grant and MACC's Ken Pruitt at MACC will be adapting the existing course for coastal issues.

Some of the key issues to be included in the coastal modules are coastal development, coastal flooding and erosion, and water quality. Although the project is in its earliest stages, the team has defined some clear objectives to meet the needs of coastal conservation commissions. The first step will be to expand the existing training course to include examples of coastal problems. To ensure that this training is readily available to coastal communities, a pilot web-based program and an enhanced course taught at coastal locations will be implemented. In addition to drawing upon expertise within MA CTP and MACC, the project will engage the expertise of coastal scientists throughout the region. Integrating the results of Sea Grant supported science will not only enhance the educational offering with up to date results but will also engage Sea Grant supported scientists in local coastal planning programs.

The project will also develop educational materials to increase volunteer board members' understanding of coastal processes and coastal problems among. One of the most difficult problems facing coastal managers is delineating the edges of coastal resources, i.e., defining the narrow margin where coastal wetland resources abut or overlie each other. The MA CTP is developing a DVD on "Delineation of Coastal Wetlands" with funding from WBNERR that will detail the vegetation and landform characteristics that define this critical margin in coastal wetlands.

This unique partnership between the MACC, MA CTP, other state agencies and private groups will increase the capacity for better decision making in coastal communities and will enhance the integration of the latest scientific results with regulatory decisions. The end result, we hope, will be better training and scientifically sound decisions for sustainable coastal communities.