“When I would recreate myself, I seek the darkest wood, the thickest and most impenetrable and to the citizen, most dismal, swamp. I enter a swamp as a sacred place, a sanctum sanctorum.”
– Henry David Thoreau. Walking. 1862
Wetlands are considered some of the most important habitats on the planet for plant and wildlife conservation. There are many different types of wetlands, including marshes, swamps, bogs, and fens, and almost as many different systems for classifying wetlands. The essential features of all wetlands are summed up in EPA’s definition:
“A wetland is an area that is regularly saturated by surface water or groundwater and is characterized by a prevalence of vegetation that is adapted for life in saturated soil conditions”
According to this definition, wetlands don’t have to be wet all the time. Yet, most have standing water or wet soils at least some part of the growing season. The soggy nature of wetlands and perception of them as mosquito habitats with no real value resulted in their large-scale drainage in the 1700s and into the 1900s for agriculture, mosquito control, water diversion projects and urbanization. Wetland loss has been significant in the US:
Today, wetlands are still vulnerable to loss or inadvertent destruction related to land development and other activities. The Clean Water Act requires land developers to take all necessary steps to avoid impacting wetlands, and requires that created wetlands be constructed to replace any wetlands that are destroyed if these impacts are unavoidable.
However, being regulated under the Act does not necessarily mean a wetland will never be filled and developed. Also, the Act does not apply to all wetlands, it only regulates certain activities, and there have also been documented problems with created wetlands. This leaves a lot of opportunity for wetland loss and destruction to continue.
Wetlands are important to the watersheds we all live in because they are part of the natural system that provides clean water, stores and slows down floodwaters, and protects coastal shorelines from erosion and property damage. Wetlands are also habitats for wildlife that simultaneously provide opportunities for human recreation, such as birdwatching, hunting, fishing, and hiking. Scientists have begun to assign economic values to the important roles of wetlands:
At the Center, we believe that the watershed is the ideal scale for managing wetlands and other natural areas. Municipalities can regulate land development activities in their watersheds through zoning and local ordinances that influence whether polluted runoff can be directed into wetlands, and can even fill the gaps in state or local protection. The watershed approach allows communities to make better choices on preserving the highest quality wetlands, protecting the most fragile ones, addressing their water resource problems, and allocating lands to their most appropriate uses. Learn more about wetlands and watersheds using the Center resources below.
The Wetlands & Watersheds article series is available on the Online Watershed Library (OWL):
For the most up to date information about wetlands, check out these other resources: