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Wednesday, June 4, 2008 03:39 pm

Draining and paving paradise

Developers have taken millions of acres of precious wetlands

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The continental U.S. has lost almost 120 million acres of wetlands since Europeans began settling here in the early 17th century.
PHOTO COURTESY OF GETTY IMAGES

Development and urban sprawl have caused the loss of millions of acres of wetlands. What is the status of wetlands in North America?
Wetlands serve as primary habitat for thousands of wildlife species — from ducks to beavers to insects — and form an important ecosystem link between land and water. They also play a key role in maintaining water quality, because they filter out agricultural nutrients and absorb sediments so that municipal water supplies don’t have to. On and near shorelines, wetlands provide a natural buffer against storm surges and rising floodwaters, helping disperse and absorb excess water before it can damage life and property.
The eradication of wetlands in the so-called New World began when white settlers, intent on taming the land, started developing homesteads and town sites throughout what was to become the United States and Canada. Researchers estimate that at the time of European settlement in the early 1600s the land that was to become the lower 48 U.S. states had 221 million acres of wetlands. By the mid-1980s, after another great period of loss after World War II, when Army engineers drained huge swaths of formerly impenetrable marshes and swamps, the continental U.S. had only 103 million wetland acres remaining. Across the U.S. and Canada, the vast majority of wetlands — about 85 percent — have been destroyed in the name of agricultural expansion. Other major factors include road building, residential development, and the building of large facilities such as shopping malls, factories, airports and, ironically, reservoirs.
But growing awareness about the importance of wetlands has led to new regulations aimed at protecting those that remain. A variety of state and federal programs, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wetland Reserve Program (whereby landowners voluntarily protect, restore, and enhance wetlands on private property), have been effective in stemming the tide of wetlands loss. During the 1990s the rate of wetlands loss in the U.S. declined by some 80 percent over previous decades. But the nation is still losing more than 50,000 wetland acres per year, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The issue is of even greater concern in Canada, which harbors a quarter of the world’s remaining wetlands in its northern boreal forests. According to Natural Resources Canada, fully 14 percent of Canada’s total land mass is in the form of wetlands. Researchers believe that about 50 million acres of wetlands have been lost in Canada since European settlement. Underscoring the correlation between urbanization and wetlands loss, less than 0.2 percent of Canada’s wetlands lie within 25 miles of major urban centers today. On the global level, 158 governments are signatories to the 1971 Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, an international treaty that provides a framework for international cooperation in the conservation and wise use of wetlands. Some 1,743 wetland sites — totaling almost 400 million acres — have been protected as “Wetlands of International Importance” under the terms of the treaty. Although the Ramsar treaty can do little to stop illegal or legal draining of wetlands, its very existence highlights how seriously most of the world’s countries take protecting land formerly thought of as godforsaken and useless.
For more information: Wetlands Reserve Program, www.nrcs.usda.gov/Programs/WRP/; Natural Resources Canada, www.nrcan-rncan.gc.ca; Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, www.ramsar.org.

Send questions to Earth Talk at P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881 or e-mail earthtalk@emagazine.com.
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