What is So Important About Wetlands?
When you drive by a bog, swamp or marsh along the highway, it might not look like a very important place. As a matter of fact, people in North America and Europe both have equated wetlands with wastelands. They are even portrayed in countless tales as sinister places – it is no coincidence that Grendel, the hideous monster in Beowulf, comes from a fen!
The fact is, however, that wetlands are incredibly important places both to the environment and to humans in particular.
What is a Wetland?
The EPA defines a wetland as any environment in which water is the dominant feature and dictates the community of plants and animals that are adapted to grow there. Wetlands include places like bogs, swamps, bayous or salt marshes. They will vary widely by their soil content and by what plants and animals make up their communities. Some, like salt marshes, are dominated by grass. Others, like swamps, tend to have trees and shrubs among their dominant species.
Wetlands and the Environment
Wetlands are actually one of the most richly diverse habitats on earth, on a par with coral reefs or tropical rainforests. It is estimated that around 31% of all of the plants in North America come from some sort of wetland area. Around 50% of all species of North American birds use the wetlands for feeding or nesting. And nearly 30% of all North American species protected by the Endangered Species Act are directly or indirectly dependent upon wetland habitat. These numbers alone show how important the wetlands are for wildlife.
Wetlands for Water Quality and Flood Control
Two of the most important ways in which wetlands help humans are related to water quality and flood control. When water enters into a wetland area, the speed at which it flows begins to slacken. This allows sediment and water contaminants such as fertilizers to settle to the bottom. Once there, they are either absorbed by plants such as cattails or devoured by the bacteria-rich environment in the bottom of the wetland area. These areas are so good that many companies build artificial wetland areas around their plants and factories to act as natural filters for wastewater.
Wetlands are also incredibly important to protect human settlements and natural habitats from flooding. They are a sort of natural sponge and as such are able to absorb massive amounts of water. This can help in flood situations where excess water simply has not place to go. It is estimated that, on average, 1 acre of wetland can hold between 1 and 1.5 billion gallons of water. The presence of wetlands, with their enormous capacity for water retention, can make a huge difference in terms of how much damage is done to an area during a time of flood.
Wetlands for Fisheries
Commercial and recreational fishing together bring in around $111 billion dollars a year in the United States alone. It is an incredibly important part of the economies of many coastal areas as well as states like Michigan that have rich inland water resources. However, without healthy and abundant wetland areas, this industry would simply fall apart. That is because wetlands are an important part of the life cycle of many commercially valuable species. These species include flounder, sea trout, crabs, shrimp, clams and oysters, just to name a few.
Status of Wetlands
Wetland habitat is incredibly endangered. The United States has already lost over 50% of its wetland areas and each year, approximately 60,000 acres more are lost. They are mostly lost to draining and development and to flooding for the creation of lakes and reservoirs. Some wetland areas are protected under the Clean Water Act, the River and Harbors Act or a patchwork of state laws. It is clearly, however, not enough.
Fortunately, organizations like Defenders of Wildlife, the Nature Conservancy and other state and local conservation associations are working to protect wetland habitat and even to help restore or create more. One of the best informational articles on what the individual citizen can do to help was created by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The site is www.habitat.noaa.gov/protection/wetlands/whatyoucando.html.
So while a swamp or a bog may seem like “waste ground”, these habitats are incredibly important, both to the environment and wildlife and to human beings. When they are in danger, so are hundreds of plant and animal species. When they are in danger, so are human habitations and so is the fishing industry. It is all related. And it is all valuable.
The Environmental Protection Agency www.epa.gov
Defenders of Wildlife www.defenders.org
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service www.fws.org
By The Great Gathering
Copyright The Great Gathering 2014©