Gov. Hochul proposal would strengthen protections
By Zachary Matson
Scientists refer to the large peat bogs in the northwestern Adirondacks, some well over 1,000 acres in size, as “charismatic” due to their critical habitat, vast expanse and rare nature.
The peatlands provide some bird species habitat at their southernmost range and are showing early signs of climate change as many of those bird species retreat to higher altitudes and more northern climes. Warming weather has disrupted the food cycles the birds rely on.
While scientists have documented a bird decline in the bogs over more than a decade, the same research has shown that the strongest wetlands ecosystems are those best preserved in size and scale.
“It is true those big intact spaces are the most likely to have birds and the diversity of them and to retain them over time,” said Michale Glennon, a wildlife scientist who has documented the declining presence of boreal birds in Adirondack wetlands.
Now, environmentalists across New York hope to strengthen wetlands protections and preserve as much of the important ecosystem as possible. A proposal in Gov. Kathy Hochul’s budget would strengthen protections for over 1 million acres statewide and improve the public maps that specify their locations. It would also grant the Department of Environmental Conservation commissioner a wide berth to designate wetlands of special importance worthy of protection.
Wetlands within the Adirondack Park already receive extra attention: they are regulated at one acre or larger, while for the rest of the state wetlands of 12.4 acres or larger are regulated. The Adirondack Park Agency regulates wetlands inside the park, while DEC regulates them around the state.
Conservationists inside and outside the park hope a new focus on wetlands will raise up the important roles they play in flood mitigation, water quality, carbon sequestration and as habitat for plants and animals. A coalition of Adirondack and other environmental groups across the state are lobbying legislators to pass the new wetlands laws.
Kelley Tucker, executive director of the Ausable River Association, said she hopes that one day “remnant wetlands” can be restored to their natural state. She said the healthier wetlands are the more likely they will serve as a buffer against floods and other future climate change impacts.
“We know there are areas that were once wetlands,” Tucker said.
The new regulations included in Hochul’s proposed budget legislation would guarantee protections based on size and establish criteria on which the DEC commissioner could designate a wetland of “unusual importance.”
Wetlands are only protected under current state rules if they are included on official wetlands maps, but many parcels that meet the threshold for protection have not been added to those maps, conservationists contend.
“The problem is any wetlands is only jurisdictional if it is on an approved map,” said Roger Downs, conservation director at the Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter in Albany. “To get them on maps is an incredibly cumbersome process.”
Downs said state officials have identified large swaths of wetlands across the state but failed to add them to maps. He said the new rules will require developers to more closely consider the location of these areas and give advocates more tools to challenge development in them.
“If it has all the qualities of a wetland it’s a wetland, and DEC can immediately protect it,” Downs.
The new rules if approved would require both DEC and APA to publish wetland maps online, and the law could spur more efforts to improve existing maps. The proposal would also increase permit fees and penalties, providing a source of funds for the mapping work.
“I think it does give the (park) agency more tools to identify wetlands and protect them,” Downs said.
In the Adirondacks, wetlands are on the front lines of climate change – where around 15 percent of the park’s land cover constitutes wetlands habitat. Not only are they a major carbon sink, storing thousands of years of accumulated carbon in thick mats of undecomposed growth, they also are showing early signs of warming.
Woody shrubs and trees have started to inch into wetlands habitat, shading or crowding out some plants and potentially disrupting a delicate ecology.
Steve Langdon, an ecologist and the director of the Shingle Shanty Preserve and Research Center west of Long Lake, has documented deciduous saplings like maples starting to encroach into black spruce bogs, a noteworthy change because deciduous leaves will decompose much faster than spruce needles.
“It totally changes the equation over long periods of time of how much carbon is stored,” Langdon said.
Highlighting the high biodiversity of wetlands, Langdon noted that half of the state’s plants occur within wetlands, even though these lands only make up 10 to 15 percent of the state’s land cover. He said plants in Adirondack wetlands range from species you would find north of the Arctic circle to sycamore trees with ranges stretching to the Gulf of Mexico.
“That’s plant diversity that covers a third of the distance between the equator and the pole,” Langdon said.
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