Fact Sheet
Designing Projects to Minimize Impacts upon Natural Resources

June 1996        Phone:  (207)-287-3901      LWF/95-3, DEPLW96-8


State law identifies certain natural resources as having "state significance" due to their recreational, historical and environmental value to present and future generations. The Natural Resources Protection Act (NRPA) is designed to prevent the degradation and destruction of and to encourage the protection or enhancement of:

  • coastal wetlands and sand dunes
  • great pond
  • fragile mountain areas
  • freshwater wetland
  • rivers, streams and brooks
  • significant wildlife habitat

The NRPA requires permits for certain activities in, on or over a protected natural area. It also requires permits for activities on land adjacent to any freshwater wetland, great pond, river, stream or brook that could cause material to be washed into these resources. Examples of these activities include:

  • dredging, bulldozing, removing or displacing soil, sand, vegetation or other materials;
  • draining or otherwise dewatering;
  • filling;
  • constructing, repairing or altering any permanent structure (i.e., one constructed or placed in a fixed location for a period exceeding seven months of the year).

When planning and designing a project, it is important to consider the potential effects that activity could have on natural resources. By doing so, it is often possible to develop a less damaging proposal that is also less expensive, more easily permitted and accomplished faster. Planning and designing projects to minimize their effects upon natural resources can save time, money and headaches!

This DEP Fact Sheet answers questions commonly associated with designing projects for minimum impact. However, this publication is not a substitute for the law or regulations. Anyone planning and designing a project should obtain and carefully review a copy of the NRPA statute and regulations and other educational publications available from the DEP by contacting one of its offices listed below.

Is there a basic approach to project planning and design that will minimize impacts upon natural resources?

One approach is to ask the following questions:

1) Is the intended activity crucial to the goals and objectives of the overall project, or is there an alternative activity that would achieve the same objectives without causing either adverse effects to natural resources or an unreasonable economic burden to the project's viability?

2) Is the proposed site of the activity planned crucial to the goals and objectives of the overall project or is a site available where the activity will have fewer impacts upon natural resources or where the natural resources affected are of less significance?

3) Is the project or activity designed to have the least possible impact upon the natural resources on the site or in the site's vicinity?

4) Are the construction or alteration aspects of the project or activity those least likely to have adverse impacts upon natural resources, or are there alternative methods available that would cause less harm without causing an undue economic burden?

5) Will the project or activity be completed with the least possible long-term impact to natural resources?

Is it possible to avoid environmentally sensitive areas? How can these areas be identified?

It makes the most sense to avoid environmentally sensitive areas altogether. If feasible, try to find a site for your project or activity where there are no sensitive natural resources or where activities can occur without damaging sensitive resources. Most sensitive resources are readily identifiable: the definitions in the NRPA and guidelines contained in NRPA regulations specify features to look for when attempting to determine if a sensitive area is present. Reference materials available in libraries, town offices, or at the DEP, that can help you identify sensitive natural areas include:

  • U. S. Geological Survey topographical maps;
  • The Maine Atlas and Gazetteer ©, published by the DeLorme Mapping Company;
  • National Wetlands Inventory maps compiled by the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service;
  • U. S. Department of Agriculture soil survey maps;
  • Maine Land Use Regulation Commission zoning maps; and
  • local shoreland zoning maps.

What kind of activities is it best to avoid or minimize? What alternatives exist?

By far, most NRPA applications involve projects or activities that will affect sensitive water resources: coastal wetlands, freshwater wetlands, great ponds, rivers, streams and brooks. Clearly, the best way to avoid the concerns the NRPA addresses is to design the project to avoid activities in, on or adjacent to such areas. By staying away from these senstive areas, most impacts may be avoided or reduced. Some specific guidelines to follow, if possible, in project design and planning include:

  • Locate the project or conduct the activity in an area outside the boundaries of a wetland and more than 100 feet from the shoreline of great ponds, rivers streams and brooks. Remember, water does not have to be present year around; even small intermittent streams that flow for only a few days each year can be subject to the NRPA.
  • Avoid areas that are prone to flooding, even if the potential flood conditions may occur once in every 100 years. Plan and design the project to assure adequate natural control of stormwater runoff. Use erosion control fabrics, riprap or vegetation, where necessary, to filter runoff from the site.
  • Avoid disturbing the natural vegetation by maintaining wide buffers around sensitive areas. Do not create large areas of bare soils that might lead to erosion. Plan to replace any vegetation disturbed.
  • Projects or activities that will involve the disturbance or removal of soils are most likely to have effects on sensitive resources. If it is not possible to avoid soil removal or disturbance, plan the project or activity to keep such disturbances to the absolute minimum. For example, do not use heavy equipment which might add to the disturbance: if equipment is necessary, operate on mats or platforms to minimize soil disturbance and harm to natural vegetation. Avoid techniques that might encourage erosion or cause soil to wash into the water resource. Employ construction methods that minimize impacts (e.g., use pile supports for structures in lieu of a foundation: use silt fences, staked hay bales, sediment traps and retention basins to control sedimentation).
  • Avoid using fill materials. Fill may not be removed from an area subject to the NRPA, and if fill is used, it must not wash into an area subject to the NRPA.
  • Avoid using construction materials that harm the environment (e.g., wood treated with toxic substances, uncured concrete).
  • Consider alternatives that may have fewer impacts. For example, avoid the impacts of permanent structures such as piers and docks by using portable facilities and floats.
  • In coastal beach areas, locate the project and conduct any activities away from sand dunes, ridges and berms. Avoid activities that would destabilize these areas or encourage erosion.
  • Avoid sensitive wildlife areas. These include: habitat for species on official federal or state lists of endangered species; deer wintering areas and travel corridors; habitat for waterfowl and wading birds including nesting and feeding areas; shorebird nesting, feeding and staging areas; seabird nesting islands; Atlantic sea run salmon spawning and nursery areas; and vernal pools (seasonal fisheries habitat).

If you have any questions or concerns about your project or activity, the best way to avoid problems is to seek help early on in the process, before commiting substantial time and money. Consult with the DEP by contacting one of the offices listed below, contact your local code enforcement officer or the County Office of the U. S. Natural Resources Conservation Service (listed in the telephone directory under the U. S. Department of Agriculture).

For more information about the NRPA, ask for a copy of the law (Title 38 M.R.S.A., Sections 480-A through 480-Y) and for the publication Protecting Maine's Natural Resources, by contacting DEP staff at one of the following locations:

Augusta Office
17 State House StationRay Building, AMHI Complex
Augusta, ME 04333
(207) 287-3901

Eastern Maine Regional Office
106 Hogan Road
Bangor, ME 04401
(207) 941-4570

Northern Maine Regional Office
528 Central Drive
Presque Isle, ME 04769
(207) 764-0477Southern Maine Regional Office
312 Canco Road

Portland, ME 04103
(207) 822-6300