Local Communities Can Play a Critical Role in Protecting Vernal Pools

Michigan's wetlands are protected by the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act (451) under Part 303. This means that wetlands that fall under state regulation require permitting for " dredging; filling; draining surface water; or constructing, operating, or maintaining any use or development in a wetland"(State of Michigan). Some vernal pools can receive protection from state wetland regulations under Part 303; however, the state only regulates wetlands that are five acres in size or more. Many vernal pools are smaller than five acres, typically ranging between a quarter and five acres. Pools that do not meet the five-acre minimum do not receive protection under state regulation. This five-acre standard in Part 303 was a political compromise in the development of Michigan's wetland laws, not based on scientific reasoning. Small, isolated wetlands, like many vernal pools, should be considered for protection by local communities as they provide valuable ecosystem services, provide critical habitat for many species, support immense biodiversity, and become more important for habitat and flood storage as an area develops. 

In 2022,  EGLE, an MVPP co-lead, teamed up the Stewardship Network, MVPP organizational partner, to host a webinar series to address the issue of local wetland protection and provide resources and information that help enable local governments and stakeholders to increase protection of their wetlands, lakes, and streams. To explore the full series of workshops, visit the Stewardship Network’s website here: https://www.stewardshipnetwork.org/egle/ 

In the workshop titled, “Tools for Local Protection of Wetlands, Lakes and Streams”, experts Anne Garwood, Kate Kirkpatrick, and Yu Man Lee summarize and provide specific tools to help local communities incorporate wetland protections into their local regulations & planning. Watch the full workshop here.

Below, you will find a summary of the main tools mentioned in the webinar to help you explore options for your community. Click on the individual headers of each tool to be navigated to the specific timecode in the webinar for more details on each tool.  

NEW: At our 2023 Annual Meeting, EGLE'S Kate Kirkpatrick joined us to talk about "Filling the Gaps in Wetland Protection", which includes the tools you can use to protect vernal pools. To watch this talk, please click this link and navigate to the timecode 37:00.  

Check back to this page for additional support for local communities looking to develop wetland ordinances. Providing resources for local communities is one of the main priorities of the MVPP Conservation subcommittee, and we are actively working on additional tools. To get involved in this subcommittee or if you have any questions regarding local vernal pool protections, please contact mvpp@michigannature.org. 

Why Protect Vernal Pools at the Local Level?

Local governments and stakeholders have local knowledge that make them well suited to protect the wetlands around them at a more fine scale than the state can provide. The responsibilities of local governments in respect to site plans and land use put them in a position where they make plans for conservation of natural features before development begins. 

For more on the benefits of local protections, click here

Helpful resources:

Tools for Protecting Wetlands at the Local Level (watch the full workshop here)

  • Local Wetland Ordinances
  • Natural Features Setbacks
    • Defined by EGLE as a “building or principle use limitation a certain distance from a wetland or natural feature”, which can reduce edge effect and create an undisturbed buffer around the feature you are trying to protect. For vernal pools, buffers are important as many vernal pool species travel between wetland and the surrounding upland areas as part of their survival strategies. 
    • For more information on Natural Features setbacks, read Chapter 4 of this EGLE guide
    • Examples of Natural Features Setbacks
  • Linking Local Approval to State Permits
    • Puts a stipulation in your zoning building ordinances which basically says you require state permits before issuing any local permits
  • Site Plan Review Regulations
    •  Would add a provision in a zoning ordinance that would require a wetland review of proposed projects' site plans to make sure standards are being met
  • Performance Based Zoning
    • A way of zoning that does not use traditional districts (i.e. residential, commercial, industrial) and instead by performance based standards that developers must adhere to. Prevents sprawl and allows for flexibility in land use, promoting development of vacant or underused land.
  • Performance Guarantees
    • Local governments will collect a form of insurance (can be a variety of monetary options) as a way to ensure that developers follow correct construction protocols or protect communities from unfinished/abandoned projects.
  • Lot Split or Lot Division Regulations
    • Regulations intended to prevent poor planning of land division, which can be used in the prevention of fragmentation of natural areas.
  • Environmental Planning in Public Infrastructure Projects
    • Responsibility of local government in planning to be mindful of natural resources, i.e. encouraging infill and away from sensitive areas.
  • Open Space Zoning and Conservation Design
    • “Techniques used by communities to accommodate growth while preserving natural resources, rural character, prime agricultural and forest lands, scenic views, historic landmarks, and other special features”