What is a Wetland?
There are many who may not know the meaning of the word wetland. Basically, it’s any kind of wet habitat including bogs, swamps, marshes, pond habitats, and more. The definition has been fought over for some time. According to naturalists, an area is a “wetland” if it contains either water, and/or a specialized wetland soil, and/or plant life specialized to live in wet areas. According to the legal definition, a wetland must have all three components to be a wetland. Unfortunately, even this definition isn’t crystal-clear.
Many difficulties in defining wetlands present themselves. Contentious issues include how large a wetland must be (that pond in your backyard, or the Great Dismal Swamp?), and the location of its borders. In nature, ecosystems change types slowly, fading from wetland to dry area over a small to large land expanse. However, in today’s world of property and boundaries, it became necessary to put strict boundaries around wetlands. The job of identifying wetlands and their legal boundaries is often up to the Army Corps of Engineers. It is also their job to issue permits required for developers to destroy, fill in, and build over or near a wetland.
Wetlands can be formed in several ways, and are subject to natural succession, meaning they are constantly changing, growing, and/or fading into forest. Many wetlands are formed in pit or basins in the ground, which were carved there long ago by glaciers, floods, earthquakes, and even meteors. Wetlands can also form next to rivers and streams, developing specialized soils and plants as they are continually flooded by run-off waters. Unique wetland formations include mangrove swamps, which develop very slowly, actually making soil out of the mangrove leaves for the next generation of trees to grow in. Wetlands are some of the most variable ecosystems in nature.
Why do Wetlands Matter?
Now that we know what a wetland is, why are they important to protect? Aren’t swamps usually thought of as nasty? They’re difficult to farm and build on or near. They stink, and they are home to scary creatures like alligators and misquotes. Who cares if they are filled in? Though estimates differ, we are certain from modern land surveying techniques that the amount of wetland in the U.S. has drastically decreased. But why care?
Wetlands boat a plethora of benefits to humans, both practical and more abstract. Practically, they provide flood abatement, erosion prevention, storm protection, water quality improvement, and economic benefits such as local fishing industries. By slowing down and soaking up floodwaters, wetlands protect surrounding areas from damage. They also prevent soil from getting washed away (erosion), which makes for better farming and land quality. By absorbing and processing heavy metals, toxins, and pollution, wetlands additionally improve water quality, meaning there is less artificial processing needed for our tap-water. Many local areas depend on fishing and harvesting of wetlands, such as areas surrounding the Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.
In more abstract terms, wetlands provide aesthetic and recreational benefits. For bird-hunters and bird-watchers alike, it’s important to know that wetlands are critical temporary habitats for many water birds, game birds, and song birds. Many hikers and nature lovers have the quality of their lives increased by having access to wetland parks. When it comes to educational value, the great variety of wetland types and the processes they perform means it’s near impossible to find a better place to teach children and students about ecosystems. For those who care about wildlife for the sake of wildlife, and for those who hunt small game or engage in fur-trapping, bear in mind that wetlands are home to many types of animals, including the beautiful-furred mink, otters, many rodents, salamanders, frogs, toads, and many beautiful fish and birds.
Even if you completely ignored the abstract benefits of wetlands, the practical benefits alone are enough for any logical person to reconsider their stance on destruction of wetlands. People in Virginia take for granted that wetlands prevent even more destructive floods than the ones we sometimes experience. Who wants more of their tax dollars spent and more of their neighborhood land replaced by expensive water purifying facilities? Who wouldn’t rather see a green border of trees and shrubs leading down into a rich, wet ecosystem of life with a massive variety of practical usage?
Are Wetlands Protected?
You must be thinking: there are environmentalists everywhere, so surely wetlands are protected? The answer is convoluted. Some protection is in place; however, it is largely deemed far from adequate protection. Judge for yourself as the protections are briefly explained.
In order to build near or on a wetland, one must acquire permits through the Federal program, and sometimes pass through State permitting as well, depending on the State. The Army Corps of Engineers ultimately decides whether to issue a permit, and though they take pains to hear input from the public and from the environmental organizations, they can essentially approve whatever they want. Theoretically, they are weighing costs and benefits—for example, is this new shopping center or apartment complex really worth the destruction of such a useful natural system? But since few people have a working understanding of just how valuable wetlands are, it’s not unfair to doubt that they make the best decisions.
The good news is that for every wetland destroyed, mitigation must be made. Mitigation means reducing the painfulness of an action. Developers building on wetlands must, by law, either help restore a degraded wetland, or build another new wetland. Isn’t this great? Isn’t this all we really need? The answer is yes—if it actually effectively worked. Unfortunately, restored and newly constructed wetlands most often fail. This is due to our lack of understanding and ability to emulate natural processes. It’s also due to the fact that no rules exist about maintaining the new wetland. If they want, developers can simply scoop up some dirt, fill in some water, throw in some bushes, and never touch the new “wetland” again, not caring how long it lasts or if it’s suitable for wildlife.
As you can see, protections for wetlands have some fairly serious potential problems. However, this isn’t the worst of it. Thanks to a loophole in Federal law, developers are allowed to destroy wetlands that are not obviously connected to other bodies of water. These means many isolated wetlands, such as prairie potholes critical to migrating water birds, have no Federal protection at all. Some State permits may exist, but again, the decisions are often made without a working understanding of the practical and abstract usefulness of wetlands. Surveys are showing rapid loss of these defenseless isolated wetlands.
Why You Should Help
If I have convinced you that wetlands are at least slightly important, I have done well. I will never pretend to make a life or death case for wetlands, using emotional or fear-based attacks and often over-exaggerating. If all wetlands disappear, we can create lots more water cleaning facilities. If half our birds die, the world will eventually get over it. If some communities economically die, and some are devastatingly flooded out, well, maybe that’s nothing new. But consider if that is the optimal choice or not. If there is any way to prevent it, don’t you want those small fishing businesses and communities to thrive? Do you want people to lose their homes, livelihoods, and lives in increased floods? Do you want to take your children to the park to feed the ducks, or explain why there aren’t but a handful of such creatures left?
It can be hard to care for things you take for granted, or for people who live far away, or for animals that seem to have no effect on your life. I’m asking you not only to try to care a little, but also to be logical in the analysis of cost versus benefits. And don’t just think of your own small lifespan, but think of those who will come after you. How will your grandchildren feel knowing that their grandparents allowed for the loss of something so obviously practical, and so abstractly beautiful?
So what can you do? Is there anything you can do to help improve existing wetland protection? I am in the process of corresponding with a few wetland specialists who may be able to tell us how we can help. If you want to help, such as by sending letters (which I can provide a template for) or signing a petition, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I will keep you up to date on what can be done and what is being done. Thank you for reading.