America’s Wetlands

Paradise Lost

Michael Amsler

Despite strict regulations, we’re losing America’s wetlands

By Sally Deneen

SHE-CRAB SOUP arrives at restaurant tables on North Carolina’s Outer Banks as a rich, sweet concoction, delighting tourists and new residents whose cars still boast license plates from their old states: Florida, Ohio, New York. As the ocean breezes sweep away the day-to-day worries of beach-bound visitors, Environmental Defense Fund scientist Doug Rader realizes the days of the regional soup may be numbered. It’s a simple axiom: No wetlands, no seafood.

Across San Francisco Bay from the Golden Gate Bridge, the salty bay waters mingle with the melting snowcaps of the Sierra Mountains to form the largest estuary on the west coast of North and South America. Yet, almost all of the freshwater marshes in this California delta are gone. Half of the tidal marshes have been destroyed, while others have been transformed into surreal, sunken farmlands. From the Gulf of Mexico’s salt marshes to North Dakota’s “prairie potholes,” America’s wetlands are disappearing rapidly, according to U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service statistics comparing the Colonial 1780s to the 1980s.

The rate: an acre a minute.

California has lost the greatest percentage (91 percent), but 21 other states have paved over or tilled at least half of their original wetlands. Fast-growing Florida has filled in the most acreage–a land size bigger than all of Massachusetts, Delaware, and Rhode Island combined. Add the entire land size of California to that, and you can mentally picture the amount of wetlands lost since the Revolutionary War.

In cold, hard, economic terms, each acre of wetland is worth 58 times more money than an acre of ocean in the benefits it provides, according to Science. Wetlands act like sponges: The porous, jet-black peat helps soak up heavy rains and melting snow that otherwise may flood suburban yards. They also function like kidneys, filtering out dirt, pesticides, and fertilizers before the unwanted runoff reaches lakes and streams. Without wetlands, excessive sediment can smother fish-spawning areas and fertilizers can kill the prized fish sought by anglers.

Some of these soggy lands also serve as broad water-storage areas, allowing people to later enjoy these waters for iced tea and showers. And wetlands are a smorgasbord for frogs and migratory birds, and home to America’s ducks. According to the National Audubon Society, wetlands compare to tropical rainforests in the diversity of species they support.

Yet which is more valuable to humans? According to Science, an acre of tropical forest is worth $817 for its ecosystem benefits. An acre of open ocean is worth $103. An acre of wetlands: $6,017.

Yet they continue to vanish.

Michael Amsler

Morning on the Laguna de Santa Rosa: The 22-square-mile waterway in Sebastopol faces the same threats as wetlands across the nation–namely, fragmentation, or broken habitat–and decreasing biological diversity. “The key is not just protecting what we have left, because we’ve gone way beyond that,” says Laguna Foundation executive director Kim Cordell. “We need to reassemble and re-establish a sustainable habitat. That takes more than laws–it requires a real community effort.”

Permit Panacea?

RIGHT NOW, Vice President Al Gore’s office is fielding phone calls from concerned environmentalists and wildlife lovers who hope he will stave off “the biggest challenge to wetlands protection,” says Robin Mann, an outraged member of the Sierra Club’s Wetlands and Clean Water Campaign Steering Committee.

Shopping centers and riverfront homes conceivably could sprout up on soggy land without the usual requirements: notifying the public or asking for permission from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the agency in charge of regulating the use or destruction of wetlands. The new “quick permits” would allow up to three acres of non-tidal wetlands to be developed or farmed, and up to 10 acres of any non-tidal wetlands to be destroyed as part of a “master planned development,” notes Julie Sibbing, assistant director for wetlands and wildlife refuge policy at the National Audubon Society.

In some cases, a builder wouldn’t have to notify the Corps at all. And the traditional requirement that wetlands be avoided where possible wouldn’t apply–a crucial failing, say environmentalists and wildlife specialists. Don’t like what’s being built next door? Sorry. No public input would be allowed either, Sibbing adds.

Ironically, these “rubber-stamp permits,” as Clean Water Network’s Kathy Nemsick calls them, are meant to quell public outcry, not rekindle it. They would replace the controversial and apparently more protective Nationwide Permit 26, which allows up to three acres of isolated or headwater wetlands to be destroyed. The Corps has promised to ditch the more stringent permit by year’s end.

It’s no surprise the oil and gas industry want the current permitting system changed.

But this would’ve been a welcome innovation for retirees Bob and Mary McMacken, too. Their case is an example of how the old wetlands law was used badly: They received permits to build a house on less than an acre in a still-developing subdivision in Pennsylvania’s Poconos, and lived there four years before a letter arrived in the mailbox telling them to cease and desist. Their property was a wetland, the Corps wrote. The message: Get out.

“This was a real emotional process to go through,” says Nancie G. Marzulla, president of Defenders of Property Rights, the nation’s only public-interest legal foundation dedicated exclusively to protecting property rights. “It took us two years to work with the Corps to get them absolved of all liability.”

Trouble is, government scientists say the Corps’ new proposal would destroy more wetlands and streams than the current dredge-and-fill permits. It also expands the scope of waters that could be filled in, and the Corps hasn’t gathered data on the resulting environmental impacts either, writes a concerned Jamie Clark, director of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. And what about endangered species? It could take two to three years to consult with Clark’s agency and the National Marine Fisheries Service to hash out the possible impact. But that’s too late: Some of the 16 new permits could be the law of the land as early as March.

And, the proposal “may not be consistent with” the Clean Water Act, which requires only “minimal adverse environmental impact,” Clark wrote in a letter to Michael Davis, deputy assistant secretary of the Army, representing the Corps of Engineers.

“What we’re demanding is that they withdraw the package,” says environmentalist Mann, who is encouraging the public to write to Vice President Gore.

RADER, the EDF scientist, speaks quickly, matter-of-factly. Rader can mentally connect the dots between the tasty sea creatures on dinner tables–softshell crab, blue crab, and flounder–and the health of local wetlands. “All of those fish are directly linked to brackish-water estuaries that are girdled by wetlands,” notes Rader.

Only four states have more wetlands than the popular resort destination of North Carolina, which has lost about half of its original soggy lands–transformed into homes for new retirees, developments, and farms. Time was when the state’s two-legged population doubled just every 50 years. But as resort towns and cities grow, residents in some counties may quadruple in 50 years, Rader says: “We’re looking at a huge increase–particularly in the northern Outer Banks. It means all bets are off in terms of estuarine environments.

“In 20 years, will all the fish here come from fish farms and foreign waters? I think that’s a possibility.”

That may be surprising, since some of the nation’s largest fish nurseries are found along North Carolina’s Pamlico Sound. The estuaries also have been rocked by headline-grabbing outbreaks of a fish-killing neurotoxin called Pfiesteria piscicida, believed to be caused by a chain reaction that occurs when waste draining off farms enters the rivers. The puzzling toxin causes a variety of symptoms in anglers, including wheezing and nervous and respiratory system ailments. So people are advised not to eat fish when outbreaks occur.

Such suggestions aren’t good for business: Commercial and sport fishing each year add at least $152 billion to the U.S. economy and provide about 2 million jobs, and three fourths of the nation’s fish production depends on marshes, estuaries, and other wetlands, according to the Izaak Walton League of America.

Though Rader feels a sense of optimism after the August announcement that about $221 million in federal money is on the way to restore local watersheds, and a 1997 state Marine Fisheries Reform Act now requires “no net loss” of wetlands, that doesn’t mean all is well. For one thing, pigs outnumber people in North Carolina, and some of the fecal waste of the 10 to 12 million swine end up in rivers. Meanwhile, farms and other development continue to eliminate wetlands and riparian buffer vegetation. So “the kidneys of these landscapes are being eliminated,” Rader explains.

In trendy Portland, Ore., 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 United States.

Michael Amsler

Waddling in the wetlands: Migratory geese forage at Chanslor ranch, Bodega Bay.

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 United States, 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 re-create the original soggy lands. In some cases, homeowners’ 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, La.

Northwestern University civil engineering professor Kimberly Gray is creating wetlands in the unlikely industrial setting of Chicago’s South Side, but she cautions that re-created 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 re-create 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 ongoing restoration of Chesapeake Bay, where the fresh waters 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 wetlands.

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, and by 2050, 70 percent of Americans are expected to live on the coast. “So the pressures are ever increasing,” he adds.

Michael Amsler

Sign of the times: A rusted relic at the Chanslor ranch.

Uneasy Neighbors

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, Fla. 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, encouraging 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 city itself is the site of a former wetland.

This article, here slightly abridged, originally appeared in E magazine.

From the January 7-13, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.