Protecting Vernal Pools

vernal pool at Lincoln Woods Wildlife Sanctuary

Vernal pools are extremely vulnerable to development. They are often overlooked when wetlands are identified on development sites because in many months these areas are dry and resemble the surrounding woodland.

Even if a vernal pool itself is saved from destruction, changes in the surrounding upland may disrupt the habitat and life cycles of the resident species. The removal of the surrounding forest during the construction of houses, driveways, and lawns, for example, may degrade a nearby vernal pool to such an extent that the amphibian population is eliminated.

Wetland Protection

Vernal pools are technically protected under the Massachusetts Wetlands Protection Act if they meet the definitions of "wetlands" under that law. "Wetlands" include vegetated wetlands bordering on water bodies, areas within 200 feet of a river (25 feet in certain urban areas), and lands subject to flooding.

If a vernal pool lies within a recognized wetland, it receives the same protection as the remainder of the wetland and may be protected as an important wildlife habitat feature of that wetland resource area. Evidence can be presented during the permitting process to document the existence of vernal pool habitat and other critical wildlife habitat features within wetland resource areas.

However, alterations and destruction of wetlands may be allowed under various regulatory provisions. Anyone can file a "Request for Determination of Applicability" with the local conservation commission to find out whether or not an area is a protected wetland.

Isolated, uncertified vernal pools are given limited protection under the Massachusetts Wetlands Protection Act. Isolated vernal pools that hold less than one-quarter of an acre-foot of water are not protected by state law unless the area is part of a larger wetland system. These areas may be protected, however, under local wetlands bylaws.

Local bylaws can, for example, make the presumption of vernal pool habitat based on certain physical characteristics, leaving it incumbent on a developer to prove that the area does not actually support vernal pool-dependent wildlife. Local bylaws can also increase the amount of protection for buffer areas around vernal pools, compared to the limited buffer zone protections provided through state law.


Certifying Vernal Pools

Certification is one of the best ways to protect vernal pools. Vernal pools are a severely threatened resource in the state and are only given the highest level of protection under the Massachusetts Wetland Protection Act if certified.

If building is proposed on a site, both developers and the local conservation commission will know about all certified vernal pools on the site. Then, the developers can take this into account when they are drafting their plans, and conservation commissions can ensure maximal protection for the vernal pools through the permit ("Notice of Intent") review process.

Certification also protects vernal pools through the federal Clean Water Act and the associated state Water Quality Certification Program. Under the Massachusetts 401 Water Quality Certification Program if the area qualifies as a federal wetland (contact the Army Corps of Engineers for information on federal wetland determinations). Under the Massachusetts 401 Water Quality Certification Program, new direct discharges of fill or stormwater to certified vernal pools are prohibited.

Anyone can help certify vernal pools (as wildlife habitat) by gathering information and submitting it to the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program. Here’s how:

The timing of certification efforts is critical. Certification efforts should occur well in advance of a development proposal in order to be most effective.

Land Protection

In addition to certification, citizens and conservation commissions should target forested uplands around known vernal pools as priorities for land protection through acquisition, conservation restrictions, or voluntary landowner land management agreements. Local bylaws can protect small vernal pools that do not qualify for state or federal protection but are nevertheless biologically important.