The New Brunswick wetlands mapping tool controversy came to close on Friday after Environment Minister Blaney announced changes to the wetlands policy, including the removal of the predictive wetlands layer from the province’s online mapping system. The department’s approach to enforcing the policy was widely criticized because a new parameter classified a far greater area of the province as wetlands (jumping from 4% to 18%) due to a new 50-metre buffer, the data was being communicated solely through the web mapping system that many found confusing, and the policy required property owners to hire consultants (costing between $3,000 and $5,000) to challenge the new designation.
The minister announced Friday that the department will no longer require functional assessments or delineations, the 50-meter buffer has been removed, and the predictive wetlands mapping layer was removed from the online mapping tool. Landowners must still obtain permits to alter land within a 30-metre buffer of mapped wetland.
Blaney was new to her role as Environment Minister and had spent nine days earlier this month touring New Brunswick and hearing from effected constituents. While these moves remove the elements of controversy, she has also committed to bring stakeholders together to advise the government on the best way to protect wetlands in New Brunswick. She plans to reveal a new long-term wetlands management plan within one year that will include better maps and new guidelines.
In 2002, the province committed to establishing an inventory of New Brunswick wetlands, but on-the-ground work has not been completed. The online system with spatial analysis from various data sets, including photo interpreted imagery, effectively delineated areas of concern but it put the burden of detailed assessments and mapping in the hands of property owners. The earlier call for the inventory didn’t allocate sufficient government funds for the substantial fieldwork necessary for detailed mapping.
The disclaimer about the quality of existing maps, and the retraction of this predictive mapping layer, points to the problems of maps driving policy directions without a clear and consistent means to verify their accuracy. Similar wetland delineation issues and public outcry of changed parameters have accompanied the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) map modernization program in the United States. In Missouri for instance, FEMA has put on hold a policy change regarding uncertified levees that would have required a far greater number of property owners to purchase flood insurance.
Land classification and property restrictions are a highly charged area where maps come under fire. New policies for modeling flood risks are needed in light of changing climate and sea level rise, but the controversial nature of these directives won’t go away. New precision in data collections such as LiDAR help verify the accuracy of assessments, but new levels of verification and visualization to communicate the accuracy of models are needed in order to respond to the inevitable public outcry.