Wetlands - A Precious and Perishable Resource

By Abby Chapple

Some people think of swamps, bogs, marshes, and other wetlands in negative terms -- as useless, foreboding, even dangerous places. Other people think of them as positive. To this mindset they are beautiful and they are nature’s nurseries, super filters, wildlife habitat and natural preventers of floods.

In literature they can evoke either dread as in Edgar Allan Poe’s "Ulalume" or positive flowing energy as in Sidney Lanier’s "The Marshes of Glynn." In art they have inspired innumerable masterpieces such as Monet’s "Waterlilies," and the haunting platinum print photograph "Gunner Working Up to Fowl."

It is obvious that we feel double minded about this phenomenon of nature and this conflict of opposing interpretations has been going on for years, much to the detriment of our landscapes and waterways.

The consequence of this ambivalence has meant that, in America, we have destroyed more than half of the roughly 215 million acres of wetland originally found in the lower 48 states. And the slaughter continues as each year roughly another 117,000 acres are destroyed, according to the Clean Water Network, an environmental group quoting government statistics.

The negative opinion of wetlands goes far back in this country’s history. In 1764 the Virginia Assembly chartered the Dismal Swamp Company to drain 40,000 acres of the Great Dismal Swamp. Then real carnage began in the mid-1800's because of the Swamp Wetlands Acts that gave fifteen states sixty-five million acres of federal lands for "reclamation." The thought was that this "unusable" land could be drained and put to "better" use. This was in spite of the fact that wetlands constituted only 5% of the US landbase. Nevertheless, by the mid-1970s only 99 million acres remained of the wetlands that existed when the exploitation of this land by Europeans commenced.

Definition of Wetlands

What was overlooked in the past was that wetlands are a vital part of the ecology that stabilizes our biosphere. They provide habitats for waterfowl and fish, help control flooding, stabilize our shorelines, reduce storm damage, and purify our waterways by removing pollution and silt. So how do you define wetlands? Simply put, wetlands are those vital pieces of real estate where the water table is found at or near the surface of the land. Or put it another way, where land and water blend. There are many definitions, however.

The National Audubon Society Nature Series Wetlands (field guide) gives this more detailed US Fish and Wildlife Service definition, "Wetlands are areas where water is the primary factor controlling the environment and the associated plant and animal life...and where water may be up to six feet deep."

There are five major systems: Two salt or saline types -- marine and estuarined; and three fresh water types -- lacustrine, riverine, and palustrine. Lacustrine are associated with lakes, riverine with rivers and palustrine with marshes, swamps and bogs.

The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) further identifies three types of wetlands and gives their percentage in the state: Forested - 41.5%, Scrub/Shrub - 23.8%, Emergent - 20.1%


Current Situation

This year it appears that the negative opinion about wetlands may be diminishing with a new appreciation of wetlands and a new ethic developing that advocates the protection and preservation of this precious resource.

First, an important event took place earlier this summer. On June 7, 2000, one specific National Wetlands Permit, (known as NWP 26), was replaced by a number of new permits by the Army Corps of Engineers. The NWP 26 was considered illegal under the Clean Water Act and is said to have been the largest cause of wetlands loss because it allowed the removal of wetlands without public notice or environmental review of alternatives. The fact that it has been replaced is very constructive. The new permits that replace NWP 26 are complicated and are not perfect but will, for instance, reduce the size of a wetland parcel that has to be permitted from 10 acres to one-half acre. As in the past these new permits must also receive 401 state certification.

Second, in August the Sierra Club applauded an announcement by the US Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers has proposed a change that will limit a loophole -- known as the Tulloch loophole -- that has in the past allowed developers to carve out ditches that drain wetlands and redirect streams without having to obtain a permit. This loophole has caused to be destroyed "more than 30,000 acres of wetlands," said Julie Sibbing, wetland specialist for the National Wildlife Federation. This clarification will not prevent all destruction, but supposedly will make local districts of the Army Corps of Engineers take a closer look at whether activities that claim exemption to the Clean Water Act really are exempt, noted Sibbing. [Comment on this proposal is ongoing until October 16, 2000, and is available at www.epa.gov/water.]

There has also been some remedial government action. For example, also in July, The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) settled a wetlands complaint in Circleville,WV. EPA announced that in August 1999, Raymond E. Phares had unlawfully dredged a portion of a Potomac River Tributary in Pendleton County. Mr. Phares, has now agreed to complete a $21,000 project to restore the damaged steam bed.

More work to be done

However, there are still many threats to our wetlands. The DEP lists the following as major threats: drainage, deposition of fill material, construction/development, tiling for crop production, overgrazing, pollution, mining, alteration of hydrology, sedimentation and agriculture/ silviculture.

For our wetlands, including the flood plains, must be identified, carefully monitored, and to be protected all permits must be reviewed by vigilant conservationists. If careful review is not given by local people there is no protection. In fact, this permit process is so important that the West Virginia Rivers Coalition has hired a specialist, Evan Hansen, to only do one thing -- monitor permits affecting West Virginia water. But one person is not enough. There need to be many more conscientious observers.

Education is the first line of defense. One example is the Wetlands Workshop that was held in August in the Eastern Panhandle. It was the brainchild of Sherry Evasic, whose group, the Blue Heron Environmental Network, joined with the Izaak Walton League of America to present a "Volunteer Wetlands Conservation and Sustainability Workshop." Many more of these workshops are needed.

The second line of defense is caring people who will monitor what is happening to our waterfronts, flood plains, ponds and marshes in West Virginia.

Recently, I had reason to speak for wetlands at a hearing on a proposed Morgan County highway that will impact 12 wetlands. As is often the case, when questioned about the fate of the wetlands that would be affected, the response by the highway officials was defensive. In particular they cited mitigation -- or the building of another wetland to replace the one destroyed -- as an answer. The problem with mitigation is although it sounds like a satisfactory alternative it is not. If you will think of a wetland as an infant, mitigation is roughly equivalent to infanticide. It is killing one child and saying "Oh, well we can just have another. This one was inconvenient." A replacement is never the same as the original. And ..... at the least, destruction of a wetland, if not infanticide, is eco-cide.

In addition those who propose mitigation are jumping over two other requirements under the Clean Water Act, Section 404 1B, that requires before anyone or any group goes to mitigation they must first exercise avoidance, and then minimization. Chapter 20 of the West Virginia Code declares "waters" are regulated, and Section 401 of the Clean Water Act and state water quality standards (Title 46, Series 1, Legislative Rules governing Water Quality Standards) cover permits. Nevertheless government officials admit that the state does not have the manpower to monitor all 401 certification, and that it generally simply OK’s US Army Corps of Engineers’ permit requests. This is a significant weakness.

Recently, for example, the Portland Press Herald newspaper in Oregon ran an article that pointed out that as dry land is disappearing developers are eyeing wetlands as locations on which to build. This is just the latest in threats to wetlands. Along with encroaching developments there will continue to be highways to get people to the developments. So, although attitudes have been improving, there are more serious threats. There is much work to be done.

What you can do

The last National Status of Wetlands summary, covering 1780's-1980's, points out that "Over a 200-year timespan, wetlands acreage has diminished to the point where environmental and even socio-economic benefits (i.e., ground water supply and water quality, shoreline erosion, floodwater storage and trapping of sediment, and climatic changes) are now seriously threatened."

This assessment not only shows the breadth of the importance of wetlands but provides us a challenge. We, collectively, need to answer the question, do we have the will to do something about this situation? If the answer is in the affirmative, there are steps that can be taken.

First, read an article entitled "Help Protect Wetlands in Your State" that is available on the Clean Water Network web site at www.cwn.org under Wetlands. There is also significant information at http://www.epa.gov/owow/wetlands and www.nwi.fws.gov. The DEP and the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources have produced a booklet "Wetlands, West Virginia" that is available by writing to their offices. Additional information is available from the National Audubon Society, the Sierra Club and Izaak Walton League.

Second, consider joining in the nation-wide effort to protect wetlands for the sake of our small-mouthed bass and other fish; our beautiful herons and wood frogs, the mallards, wood ducks, other waterfowl and the plants, many of which are endangered.

Third, appreciate the numerous wetlands that are a part of West Virginia whether they are the spectacular Cranberry Glades in the Monongahela National Forest or the cattail bog in your back yard.