Wilmington Daily Star-News Aug. 28, 2003

New maps help agencies avoid getting bogged down

Southeastern North Carolina is a very wet place.

From salt and freshwater marshes to pocosin forests, a recently revamped mapping program from the N.C. Division of Coastal Management shows up the region's damp terrain in a mosaic of colors.

"There's quite a lot of them," said Kelly Williams, the agency's wetlands specialist. Now the state Department of Transportation is using the mapping tool, which covers 37 eastern North Carolina counties, to help it find the least environmentally damaging route for new transportation projects.

But the idea isn't just to protect the most sensitive areas.

By avoiding problematic areas from the start, DOT officials hope to cut the amount of time - and money - needed to build new highways.

The information also is valuable in pinpointing areas, such as previously drained marshes, that can be used as sites for replacement wetlands, said Bill Gilmore, transition manager for the state's new Ecosystem Enhancement Program.

"It shows us where wetlands exist and where opportunities exist to enhance what's there," he said. "It's a good foundation tool to start with."

The EEP is the state's new approach to mitigating the impact on wetlands caused by transportation projects. The program aims to secure replacement areas before a project starts, thereby minimizing delays.

Ms. Williams cautioned, however, that while a good primer and quite accurate, the digital wetland inventory isn't a replacement for an onsite ground survey.

"It's not an official delineation or anything like that," she said. "But it at least gives you a heads up on what type of timeline to expect."

The wetland information, which relies on data from several federal and state sources, has been around for years.

But Ms. Williams said the old program wasn't very user-friendly.

"What we were finding was that users were having a hard time displaying the data," she said. So Coastal Management, using a $37,000 federal grant, developed a new program to display the information in a more user-friendly fashion.

Now planners can pull up a digital map showing the wetlands, but also breaking them down by type, acreage and significance rating - such as whether they're classified as exceptional or high-quality wetlands for mitigation purposes.

The program displays more than a dozen marsh types ranging from pine flats to drained and cleared wetlands.

So rather than waiting until they get their boots on the ground along a proposed roadway corridor, officials can have a good idea about what they're dealing with early in the planning stage.

"Different wetland types have different functions," Ms. Williams said, "and replacing some can be more difficult - and expensive - than others."

While the DOT and Camp Lejeune use the program, Ms. Williams said she also sees the mapping program as a potentially useful tool for developers and local governments.

"Even at the local level, this can help minimize delays and possibly help people figure out a way to avoid impacting wetlands so they don't need a permit, which can be a long and laborious process," she said.

A simplified version of the wetlands mapping program can be viewed on Coastal Management's Web site.

Gareth McGrath: 343-2384 or gareth.mcgrath@starnewsonline.com