Unique Wetlands: Developing Policy Guidelines and Locating Unique Wetlands

“Unique Wetlands” is a special designation for wetlands defined in the state water quality standards (15A NCAC 02B .0101 (e)(7)) as “wetlands of exceptional state or national ecological significance which require special protection to maintain existing uses. These wetlands may include wetlands that have been documented to the satisfaction of the Commission as habitat essential for the conservation of state or federally listed threatened or endangered species.” (Amended effective August 1, 1995)

A project to locate unique wetlands and develop technical and policy guidelines for this classification was conducted from 2001 to 2007. North Carolina’s Natural Heritage Program’s scientifically valid and defensible species occurrence and plant community data were used to develop guidelines for implementing the Unique Wetland water quality supplemental classification in North Carolina.

For a site to be considered for official Unique Wetland classification, it must meet certain criteria. The criteria were designed in two tiers. Sites that meet any Tier I criterion receive automatic consideration as a Unique Wetland. Sites that fail to meet any Tier I criteria must meet two or more Tier II criteria to be considered for the classification.

Southern Appalachian bog wetlands like Panthertown Valley Bog (pictured) meet the criteria to be considered Unique Wetlands

The selection criteria were used to find Unique Wetlands in North Carolina that satisfied the Environmental Management Commission’s requirements as habitat essential for the conservation of state or federally listed threatened or endangered species. At the time of the report in 2007, it was estimated that North Carolina had approximately five million acres of jurisdictional wetlands, but a small percentage (4% or 193,192 acres) met the Unique Wetland criteria. Approximately two-thirds of the acres of wetlands that met the Unique Wetland criteria are managed by three state and federal agencies: the US Department of Defense, NC Wildlife Resources Commission, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The remaining one-third is managed by a variety of public and private entities, such as municipal governments, land trusts, and private owners.

The wetlands that met the Unique Wetland criteria encompassed 35 natural community types, including 17 wetland types, but most of the acreage was non-riverine swamp forest and low pocosins.

Designated Unique Wetlands are considered high quality natural communities that provide essential habitat for state or federally listed threatened or endangered species.  Approximately 3,800 acres of wetlands in 11 of the state’s river basins were placed under the Unique Wetland classification as a result of this project.

Maritime swamp forests and interdunal ponds at Nags Head Woods Preserve have been classified as Unique Wetlands
The natural shoreline of Lake Waccamaw has been classified as a Unique Wetland
Wetlands that have been officially classified as Unique Wetlands are scattered across North Carolina.

Impacting Unique Wetlands

The regulatory requirements for impacting wetlands classified as Unique Wetlands under 15 NCAC 02H .0506 (e) are more stringent than other wetland classifications and offer additional opportunities for wetland conservation.

  • Impacts to Unique Wetlands will only be permitted for projects that meet a demonstrated public need and….
  • Any fill of Unique Wetland requires written approval from the NC Division of Water Resources and…
  • Mitigation for the loss of existing use will be required regardless of the area of the impact requested.

New Unique Wetland Sites

Unique Wetlands will not be designated on private lands without landowner approval, however, Unique Wetland classifications for new sites can be obtained by gathering the necessary information and making an application to the Environmental Management Commission for classification.

Contact adriene.weaver@ncdenr.gov for more information about the Unique Wetlands classification.

This work was funded by US Environmental Protection Agency grant CD97426001 and matching funds from the NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources (later renamed NC Department of Environmental Quality)