Natural wetlands are increasingly being replaced by artificial ones, like this West Kississime River project in the Everglades.© William Campbell / Peter Arnold, Inc.
In trendy Portland, Oregon, about 40 percent of area wetlands have vanished in a decade, even though protective regulations were in place, according to wetland ecologist Mary Kentula of Oregon State University. The lesson, Kentula determined, was the need for better monitoring and protection in fast-growing areas around the U.S.
Down south, almost three-quarters of Louisiana's bottomland hardwood swamps have vanished as farmers till land drained long ago by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Such swamps have always been the most common type of wetland in the U.S., claims the EDF. They're in the floodplains of rivers, such as the Mississippi, and they're found along slow-moving southern streams.
Draining the swamps of Louisiana has left the state's estimated 80 remaining black bears stranded in carved-up patches of land too small to support significant numbers of bruins, and is linked to the decline of at least 80 other threatened or endangered species, according to an EDF and World Wildlife Fund study. Residents took the unusual step of passing a constitutional amendment to start a wetlands conservation fund a decade ago, and other anecdotal successes can be pointed out. Still, the EDF claims, “The expectation that public funds will become available for drainage continues to encourage destruction of bottomland hardwoods today.”
In the willow wetlands of the sky-high Rocky Mountains, where moose delight hikers and 51 percent of the Southwest's birds depend on plants for some meals, estimates place wetland loss at 90 to 95 percent. The reasons: Cattle grazing, housing developments, ski resorts and conversion to agriculture.
That's not good news for anglers in what may be the nation's best trout fishery. “These streamside wetlands play a vital role by trapping and detaining large quantities of sediment, keeping it out of streams where it could otherwise obstruct spawning,” reports the EDF.
Plus, for the anglers to eat trout, the trout need to eat invertebrates, which need to eat leaves. And those leaves drop from the wetlands' alder and willow around this time of year.
The Clinton Administration aims for a net increase of 100,000 acres of wetlands per year by encouraging the building of artificial wetlands. Yet, studies have shown that artificially created wetlands often dry up or die because scientists don't fully understand how to recreate the original soggy lands. In some cases, homeowner's associations or commercial developers are left to tend the puzzling marshes, with decidedly checkered results.
That hasn't stopped a new trend toward “mitigation banking,” which allows developers to destroy wetlands if they, in turn, give money to a mitigation bank such as Fort Lauderdale-based Florida WetlandsBank. The banks use the money to restore wetlands elsewhere-measures like restoring drainage or killing invasive exotic plants. The banks promise to maintain the restored wetlands forever. Their value is, instead of having postage-stamp-sized wetlands dotting the landscape, you'll end up with a bigger stand of wetlands in an ecologically sound place, such as at the edge of the Everglades. The problem is, original wetlands function better.
“We still understand wetland functions relatively poorly. This hampers our ability to properly restore wetlands or create new ones to replace those lost to developmental pressures or erosion,” says Ed Proffitt, chief of the Wetland Ecology Branch of the U.S. Geological Survey in Lafayette, Louisiana.
Northwestern University civil engineering professor Kimberly Gray is creating wetlands in the unlikely industrial setting of Chicago's South Side, but she cautions that recreated marshes “aren't the same thing.”
“It's important for us to try to restore them, but I don't think we have in our power yet to go destroy one and recreate one that is comparable in substance and structure. When we create wetlands, they're usually not as diverse or robust,” Gray says.
The struggle to meet the needs of people while recovering diminished wetlands has set up a curious dichotomy: Every day, permission to build new homes, businesses and farms in original wetlands continues to be granted by local or regional governments. Meanwhile, billions of tax dollars or private dollars are earmarked to restore other wetlands. Consider the on-going restoration of Chesapeake Bay, where the fresh water of 48 rivers mix with saltwater to produce the nation's largest estuary.
The splashing sound of fish breaking the watery surface and the harsh, noisy squawks of rails flying overhead make the Chesapeake's wetlands among Michael Weinstein's favorite spots. Weinstein, director of the Sea Grant Program in New Jersey and an expert on wetlands and marsh habitats, is optimistic about the makeover: Fish immediately began using previously off-limits areas after a dike was intentionally breached. Yet, years of draining and damming destroyed nearly 60 percent of the wetlands in the three main bay states, sparking a goal of not just maintaining what's left, but adding even more w
More than 13 million people from six states live in the bay's watershed, and the next 25 years are expected to bring enough people to populate two more Baltimores and two Districts of Columbia, adding to area pollution. “Just one year of stormwater from the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area alone dumped between 1 and 5 million gallons of oil, 400,000 pounds of zinc, 64,000 pounds of copper, and 22,100 pounds of lead into the bay,” the EDF reports.
More than one in two Americans now lives on or near the coast, requiring an average of one-half acre of land apiece for new schools, post offices, and other public services, Weinstein notes. By 2050, 70 percent of Americans are expected to live on the coast. “So the pressures are ever increasing,” Weinstein adds.
That people and wetlands make uneasy neighbors is nothing new to Burkett Neely. A woman called him to complain that an endangered wood stork had relieved itself in her backyard pool in tony Boca Raton, Florida. What could Neely say? At the time, Neely tended the northern Everglades as manager of the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge west of Boca Raton. He knew the stork was—and is—an endangered species. You can't kill it, or even bother it, he says. As urban sprawl marches closer to the marshy refuge, “I think you're going to see all kinds of conflicts,” adds Neely. Neighbors already pine for mosquito-spraying, which is only marginally effective, since it isn't allowed in the refuge. “Living next to a swamp, you deal with swamp creatures,” Neely replies.
The Everglades are close to the largest wetlands in the nation, despite being reduced to half their original size. Restoring the “River of Grass” is expected to become the largest freshwater wetlands restoration project in the world: It will take at least 20 years and an estimated $1 billion. It's also overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—the same agency that did most of the swamp drainage a half-century ago.
But already, the Everglades may be losing some of their luster with politicians who favor the restoration. Last year, Congress provided $76 million for buying land as a buffer between the Everglades and urban sprawl. This year, a Senate bill slashed that to $40 million for fiscal year 1999, and a House bill provided even less—$20 million. Buying land is widely recognized as crucial in restoring the Everglades, contends the National Audubon Society. Expect more homes and businesses to move in otherwise, the organization warns.
As South Florida adds a new resident every 12 minutes through the year 2020, geographers contend the population center of the region won't be the coastal cities of Miami or Fort Lauderdale—but farther west, near the wetlands of the Everglades. Four out of five new residents are expected to live in or fairly near suburban Sunrise, home to the new arena of the Florida Panthers professional hockey team.
“For the most part, we have come a long way from the old view that wetlands were mosquito-plagued swamp wastelands full of snakes and alligators, and that their only worth was to be drained or filled for construction or agriculture,” Proffitt says.
In its simplest form, the threats to wetlands seem to boil down to a curious circle. People need a place to live, work, shop. They look for affordable, attractive choices—which may be in former wetlands. Developers build homes where demand indicates people want to live. So more people move into new ranch houses in the former wetlands. More builders build there. Soon, you have a suburb where herons once stood like statues, waiting silently for a meal to float by.
At any point, people could stop buying homes or doing business in former wetlands. That would encourage developers and businesses to stay in centralized cities. Or developers could stop building in wetlands—that would force homebuyers and businesses to look elsewhere. And government agencies could stop granting permits to develop them.
Maybe the cycle can be stopped by the folks in Washington, D.C. But don't bet on it. That town itself is the site of a former wetland.