The Importance of Wetlands
by Ro Wauer
What with the abundant dialog of late about our water resources, it might be a good time to include a brief discussion about our wetlands. These areas are some of our most important and most at risk of all our natural resources. They have seriously declined ever since 1764 when George Washington chartered the Dismal Swamp Company to drain 40,000 acres of the Great Dismal Swamp so it could be timbered. In the mid-1850s Congress gave 65 millions acres of wetlands, an area the size of Arizona, to states, urging them to "reclaim" and sell them. And between 1940 and 1960 the U.S. Department of Agriculture subsidized the drainage of another 60 million wetland acres for farmlands. More than ninety percent of California's, Connecticut's, and Iowa's wetlands are gone. Although George Bush declared, during his first presidential campaign, that he wanted to be "the environmental president," and also declared that all wetlands, "no matter how small, should be preserved," the administration pressed Congress to eviscerate the federal wetland program and to weaken the wetland provisions of the Clean Water Act. The result has been a continuing loss of wetlands. At the current rate, half the remaining wetlands in the U.S. will disappear in less than a hundred years.
The most threatened of our wetlands is the freshwater systems, the inland marshes, wet meadows, ponds, bogs, bottomland, hardwood forests, and swamps. Although these types of wetlands are often misunderstood or misidentified, here are some brief descriptions: Bog is a peat-accumulating wetland with no significant inflow or outflow of water, supporting mosses, especially sphagnum. Bottomland occurs along rivers and streams, usually alluvial and periodically flooded; when forested they are often called bottomland hardwood forests. Marsh is a peat-accumulating wetland drained from surrounding soil and generally supporting marshlike vegetation. Pothole is a shallow, marshlike pond, found particularly is the prairieland of North America; an important breeding area for waterfowl. Slough is a marsh or slowly slowing swamp in the Southeast or a swamp or shallow lake system in the northern and midwestern U.S. Swamp is a wetland dominated by trees and shrubs. Wet meadow is a grassland with waterlogged soil near the surface but without standing water most of the year.
Previously considered of little or no value, our wetlands today are recognized as precious resources for nurturing wildlife, purifying waters, checking the destructive power of floods and storms, and helping to recharge groundwater supplies and maintaining water tables in adjacent ecosystems. The inland wetlands provide habitats for freshwater fish and wildlife, including one-third of all the bird species in North America. They also are valuable for recreation and growing a wide variety of crops. And in many areas, including South Texas, these important resources are being considered for watering places outside our own hydrological basins.
Wetland protection is beset by a tangle of federal laws and regulations complicated by widely divergent interests at state and local levels. Ultimately, action to save our remaining wetlands must be initiated by Congress, the EPA, the Army Corps of Engineers, and other federal agencies, and by an administration truly concerned with the long-term health of this country's natural resources. Although a 1982 Louis Harris survey showed that 83 percent of the U.S. population believed it "very important" to preserve the nation's remaining wetlands, they continue to decline. It is time for the American public to speak out.