A Short History of the WREC Project

The ecological values ascribed to riparian and wetland areas are numerous. They are recognised as centres of high biodiversity, focal points of wildlife use, important for maintenance of water quality, and areas of high recreational and aesthetic values.

The British Columbia Forest Service has embraced a philosophy of ecosystem management in resource planning and management. The strength of this approach lies in its explicit recognition of landscapes as interrelated systems. Managing ecosystems, instead of managing for a single feature of the ecosystem such as timber production, gives the land manager more versatility to deal with a wider range of issues and values. However, adaptive management and research require tools that allow lessons to be learned and communicated. One of the most important tools for understanding ecosystems and applying ecosystem management is an ecologically based classification system. Classifications allow for the ordering, comparing, synthesising, and inventorying of information and give resource workers a common language to communicate results (Lotspeich and Platts 1982).

In 1995, a wetland and riparian classification program was initiated by the Research Branch of the Ministry of Forests to investigate wetland, riparian, and estuarine ecosystems. This program was intended to extend the concepts of Biogeoclimatic Ecosystem Classification (BEC) to wetlands and to provide an alternative classification model that recognized the unique ecological characteristics of these ecosystems. At this time, the recently released Riparian Management Area Guidebook (RMAG) (B.C. Ministry of Forests 1995) of the Forest Practices Code (FPC) used a simple wetland classification system, based primarily on wetland size, to set widths for the riparian management areas around wetlands. However, this type of classification system, while administratively easy to apply, does not reflect natural variation in the sensitivity or ecological function of different wetland types that occur in British Columbia. A system that more explicitly addresses this variability would enable the development of more site specific best management practices as well as interpretations for landscape planning, risk ranking, and wildlife habitat evaluation. An ecological classification of the province's wetlands could provide a knowledge base to incorporate ecological principles into wetland management.

The Classification Approach

In British Columbia, the Biogeoclimatic Ecosystem Classification (BEC) system has been used extensively and successfully in forestry and land management applications. BEC classifies ecosystems using fundamental ecological properties of sites and has become useful for many purposes such as the prediction of site potential for plant growth, community structure, timber production, habitat quality, and landuse planning such as the Protected Areas Strategy and Sensitive Ecosystems Survey. However, BEC is not entirely suitable for classifying wetland and riparian ecosystems. It is essential that a wetland and riparian classification fulfil the many objectives of land management laid out in current issues such as watershed restoration, riparian and biodiversity management. To meet these objectives, the classification must place ecosystems in a landscape context at several levels of detail; this facilitates our understanding of these ecosystems and improves our ability to incorporate this knowledge into land management. Improving our knowledge of wetlands and riparian ecosystems through an ecologically based classification system should help managers and researchers answer such questions as:

  • What is a damaged ecosystem and how do we restore it to a natural condition?
  • What is a site's relative value in terms of wildlife habitat, pollution mitigation, water quality, and biodiversity?
  • How does management affect these values?
  • How sensitive are these systems to disturbance?
  • What are harvesting and silvicultural considerations for different wetland and riparian ecosystems?

Many classification frameworks and some completed classifications exist. It is the intent of this project to link and modify appropriate classification structures into a consistent whole and then complete a classification of wetland and riparian ecosystems and landscapes for use in management and research (MacKenzie and Banner 1995).

A Wetland and Riparian Ecosystem Classification should be:

  • Natural — based on features that reflect environmental processes and not on classes set by arbitrary management objectives
  • Multidisiplinary — address potential uses including fisheries, aquatic ecology, wildlife habitat, river geomorphology, plant ecology, silviculture, range management, stream classification, gully assessment
  • Descriptive at several scales of detail
  • Compatible with currently used classification schemes including BEC and Canadian Wetland Classification System.

Under the auspices of the Resource Inventory Committee (RIC), classifications are proceeding on several ecosystem realms that have been poorly dealt with to date. The Wetland and Riparian Ecosystem Classification project will specifically address those ecosystems at the ecotone between freshwater-terrestrial and freshwater-terrestrial-marine, while providing a framework in which all ecosystem classifications can be united. Integration of landscape, ecosystem, and community scales of ecology is the intent.


Bunnel, P., S. Rautio, C. Fletcher, and A. Van Woudenberg. 1995. Problem Analysis of Integrated Resource Managment of Riparian Areas in British Columbia. BC. Ministry of Forests Research Program Working Paper No. 11

Lotspeich, F. B. and W. S. Platts. 1982. An integrated land- aquatic classification system. North Amer. J. Fish. Manage. 2: 138-149

MacKenzie, W., and A. Banner. 1995. A wetland and riparian ecosystem classification for British Columbia. Working Draft. Forest Renewal B.C., Resources Inventory Committee, and B.C. Wetlands Working Group. Victoria, B.C. 55 pp.