Week of 9/17/2006

Dear EarthTalk: What defines a "wetland" and how are wetlands protected in the U.S. and Canada from destruction by development and other threats?

—Julie, Olathe, KS

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines wetlands as "lands where saturation with water is the dominant factor determining the nature of soil development and the types of plant and animal communities living in the soil and on its surface." Environment Canada’s official definition is almost the same wording.

Beyond definitions, wetlands are essential ecological features in any landscape. They are primary habitat for hundreds of species of waterfowl as well as many other birds, fish, mammals and insects. They naturally filter and recharge the water that later comes out of our faucets downstream. They act like giant sponges, slowing the flow of surface water and reducing the impact of flooding. They prevent soil erosion and buffer water bodies from potentially damaging land use activities such as agriculture. And they can remove and store greenhouse gases from the Earth’s atmosphere, slowing the onset of global warming.

More than half of the original 221 million acres of wetlands that existed in the continental U.S. at the time of white settlement were destroyed by the 1980s. The story has been much the same in Canada, with analysts estimating between a 30 and 70 percent of that country’s wetlands lost during the same period.

Recognizing the importance of waterfowl and wetlands to North Americans and the need for international cooperation to help in the recovery of this shared resource, U.S. and Canada developed and signed the North American Waterfowl Management Plan in 1986. Mexico joined in 1993. The three countries have since spent $4.5 billion protecting some 15 million acres of wetlands in jeopardy across the continent.

All three governments have instituted complex regulations whereby developers wanting to fill in wetlands must make a case to justify their project. In many cases builders must create new wetlands elsewhere to "mitigate" losses, though most scientists do not consider man-made wetlands to be ecologically sound.

Wetlands protection issues landed on the national political stage in the U.S. during the 1988 presidential race, when candidate George H.W. Bush promised that under his watch there would be "no net loss" of wetlands. However, when the dust cleared after the election, developers pressured the new Bush White House to ease its stance and raise the number of days a piece of land needed to be under water (from seven to 15 per year) to qualify for protection. This allowed developers to build on new tracts of land that were previously off-limits. Environmentalists were incensed—and three key EPA scientists quit in disgust.

If you are concerned about wetlands you have several options. By keeping up on local building projects and zoning law, you can raise questions during the planning process rather than complain after the fact. Volunteering with national or local groups and land trusts that work on wetlands restoration is another way to help. American Rivers and the Izaak Walton League are two leading nonprofits working on wetlands restoration and advocating for wetlands protection in the United States; in Canada, the Wetland Habitat Fund works with landowners nationwide to protect wetlands, as does Ducks Unlimited Canada.

CONTACTS: American Rivers, www.americanrivers.org; Izaak Walton League, www.iwla.org; Wetland Habitat Fund, www.whc.org/wetlandfund; Ducks Unlimited Canada, www.wetlandscanadatrust.com.

Dear EarthTalk: What environmental impacts should our community expect if we allow Wal-Mart to open up a store nearby?

—Sara Jones, Davenport, IA

With more than 6,000 stores spread out across the globe—Wal-Mart is the world’s biggest retailer, hands down, and also a magnet for criticism for its low wages, inadequate health coverage and effect on struggling downtowns. Wal-Mart has also had its share of environmental problems.

Environmentalists complain that the company’s stores—often on the outskirts of rural communities—eat up open space, replacing farms and forests with concrete and pavement. And the company has been fined repeatedly in recent years by various agencies for environmental negligence. For example, in 2005, Wal-Mart paid $1.15 million in fines to the state of Connecticut for the improper storage of pesticides and other toxins that polluted streams near its stores there, according to the website WakeUpWalMart.com.

A year earlier, Florida fined the company $765,000 for violating petroleum storage tank laws at its auto service centers. The company admits that it failed to register its fuel tanks and to install devices that prevent overflow, and that it did not perform monthly monitoring, and that it blocked state inspections. That same year, Georgia fined Wal-Mart $150,000 for contaminating water outside of Atlanta.

And the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency penalized the company $3 million in 2004 for violating the Clean Water Act in nine states. The company was also forced to change its building practices so as to prevent future water contamination. This came on the heels of a $1 million fine for Clean Water Act violations at 17 locations in four other states. Wal-Mart also agreed to establish a $4.5 million environmental management plan to improve its compliance with environmental laws at construction sites.

Wal-Mart says that change is afoot within the company. CEO Lee Scott has said that sustainability in all its forms is a key concern moving forward. "As one of the largest companies in the world, with an expanding global presence, environmental problems are our problems," Scott told company employees last October.

Scott’s green vision includes powering facilities and fleet with renewable energy, cutting back on waste, and selling green products. Wal-Mart reportedly crafted their greening plan with the help of former Vice President Al Gore. Commitments include reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent at existing locations 20 percent, and investing $500 million in environmental improvements each year moving forward.

Wal-Mart is also reportedly ramping up plans to offer organic produce and using local farms to save transportation costs. According to Ron McCormick, an executive in the company’s produce division, Wal-Mart is already buying a wide variety of produce based on what’s available in each region, instead of shipping produce across the country. "Our whole focus is: How can we reduce food-miles?" he says.

The green attitude also extends to other products, with the company increasing offerings of sustainably harvested fish and organic cotton clothing and bedding. Critics say Wal-Mart is so focused on profit that such efforts will never stick. Only time will tell if Scott’s vision for a greener Wal-Mart becomes reality.

CONTACTS: Wal-Mart, www.walmartstores.com; WakeUpW

alMart.com, www.wakeupwalmart.com.