Wetlands a priceless natural resource
This article is from the Environmental Protection Agency
site on Wetlands. To view the EPA
information about wetlands on the Internet, go to this
Wetlands are among the most productive ecosystems in the
world, comparable to rain forests and coral reefs.
Wetlands are areas where water covers the soil, or is
present either at or near the surface of the soil all year or for varying
periods of time during the year, including during the growing season.
Water saturation (hydrology) largely determines how the soil develops and
the types of plant and animal communities living in and on the soil.
Wetlands may support both aquatic and terrestrial species. The prolonged
presence of water creates conditions that favor the growth of specially
adapted plants (hydrophytes) and promote the development of characteristic
wetland (hydric) soils
An immense variety of species of microbes, plants, insects, amphibians,
reptiles, birds, fish, and mammals can be part of a wetland ecosystem.
Physical and chemical features such as climate, landscape shape (topology),
geology, and the movement and abundance of water help to determine the
plants and animals that inhabit each wetland. The complex, dynamic
relationships among the organisms inhabiting the wetland environment are
referred to as food webs. This is why wetlands in Texas, North Carolina, and
Alaska differ from one another.
can be thought of as "biological supermarkets." They provide great volumes
of food that attract many animal species. These animals use wetlands for
part of or all of their life-cycle. Dead plant leaves and stems break down
in the water to form small particles of organic material called "detritus."
This enriched material feeds many small aquatic insects, shellfish, and
small fish that are food for larger predatory fish, reptiles, amphibians,
birds, and mammals.
functions of a wetland and the values of these functions to human society
depend on a complex set of relationships between the wetland and the other
ecosystems in the watershed. A watershed is a geographic area in which
water, sediments, and dissolved materials drain from higher elevations to a
common low-lying outlet or basin a point on a larger stream, lake,
underlying aquifer, or estuary.
play an integral role in the ecology of the watershed. The combination of
shallow water, high levels of nutrients, and primary productivity is ideal
for the development of organisms that form the base of the food web and feed
many species of fish, amphibians, shellfish, and insects. Many species of
birds and mammals rely on wetlands for food, water, and shelter, especially
during migration and breeding.
microbes, plants, and wildlife are part of global cycles for water,
nitrogen, and sulfur. Furthermore, scientists are beginning to realize that
atmospheric maintenance may be an additional wetlands function. Wetlands
store carbon within their plant communities and soil instead of releasing it
to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Thus wetlands help to moderate global
Wetlands and People
Only recently have we begun to understand the importance of the
functions that wetlands perform. Far from being useless, disease- ridden
places, wetlands provide values that no other ecosystem can, including
natural water quality improvement, flood protection, shoreline erosion
control, opportunities for recreation and aesthetic appreciation, and
natural products for our use at no cost. Wetlands can provide one or more of
these functions. Protecting wetlands in turn can protect our safety and
Water Quality and Hydrology
Wetlands have important filtering capabilities for intercepting surface-
water runoff from higher dry land before the runoff reaches open water. As
the runoff water passes through, the wetlands retain excess nutrients and
some pollutants, and reduce sediment that would clog waterways and affect
fish and amphibian egg development. In performing this filtering function,
wetlands save us a great deal of money. For example, a 1990 study showed
that, without the Congaree Bottomland Hardwood Swamp in South Carolina, the
area would need a $5 million waste water treatment plant.
addition to improving water quality through filtering, some wetlands
maintain stream flow during dry periods, and many replenish groundwater.
Many Americans depend on groundwater for drinking.
function as natural sponges that trap and slowly release surface water,
rain, snowmelt, groundwater and flood waters. Trees, root mats, and other
wetland vegetation also slow the speed of flood waters and distribute them
more slowly over the floodplain. This combined water storage and braking
action lowers flood heights and reduces erosion. Wetlands within and
downstream of urban areas are particularly valuable, counteracting the
greatly increased rate and volume of surface- water runoff from pavement and
holding capacity of wetlands helps control floods and prevents water logging
of crops. Preserving and restoring wetlands, together with other water
retention, can often provide the level of flood control otherwise provided
by expensive dredge operations and levees. The bottomland hardwood- riparian
wetlands along the Mississippi River once stored at least 60 days of
floodwater. Now they store only 12 days because most have been filled or
erosion control, opportunities for recreation and aesthetic appreciation,
and natural products for our use at no cost. Wetlands can provide one or
more of these functions. Protecting wetlands in turn can protect our safety
ability of wetlands to control erosion is so valuable that some states are
restoring wetlands in coastal areas to buffer the storm surges from
hurricanes and tropical storms. Wetlands at the margins of lakes, rivers,
bays, and the ocean protect shorelines and stream banks against erosion.
Wetland plants hold the soil in place with their roots, absorb the energy of
waves, and break up the flow of stream or river currents.
Fish and Wildlife Habitat
More than one-third of the United States' threatened and
endangered species live only in wetlands, and nearly half use wetlands at
some point in their lives. Many other animals and plants depend on wetlands
and marine fish and shellfish, various birds, and certain mammals must have
coastal wetlands to survive. Most commercial and game fish breed and raise
their young in coastal marshes and estuaries. Menhaden, flounder, sea trout,
spot, croaker, and striped bass are among the more familiar fish that depend
on coastal wetlands. Shrimp, oysters, clams, and blue and Dungeness crabs
likewise need these wetlands for food, shelter, and breeding grounds.
many animals and plants, like wood ducks, muskrat, cattails, and swamp rose,
inland wetlands are the only places they can live. Beaver may actually
create their own wetlands. For others, such as striped bass, peregrine
falcon, otter, black bear, raccoon, and deer, wetlands provide important
food, water, or shelter. Many of the U.S. breeding bird populations--
including ducks, geese, woodpeckers, hawks, wading birds, and many
song-birds-- feed, nest, and raise their young in wetlands. Migratory
waterfowl use coastal and inland wetlands as resting, feeding, breeding, or
nesting grounds for at least part of the year. Indeed, an international
agreement to protect wetlands of international importance was developed
because some species of migratory birds are completely dependent on certain
wetlands and would become extinct if those wetlands were destroyed.
Natural Products for Our Economy
use a wealth of natural products from wetlands, including fish and
shellfish, blueberries, cranberries, timber, and wild rice, as well as
medicines that are derived from wetland soils and plants. Many of the
nation's fishing and shell fishing industries harvest wetland- dependent
species; the catch is valued at $15 billion a year. In the Southeast, for
example, nearly all the commercial catch and over half of the recreational
harvest are fish and shellfish that depend on the estuary- coastal wetland
system. Louisiana's coastal marshes produce an annual commercial fish and
shellfish harvest that amounted to 1.2 billion pounds worth $244 million in
1991. Wetlands are habitats for fur-bearers like muskrat, beaver, and mink
as well as reptiles such as alligators. The nation's harvest of muskrat
pelts alone is worth over $70 million annually.
Recreation and Aesthetics
have recreational, historical, scientific, and cultural values. More than
half of all U.S. adults (98 million) hunt, fish, birdwatch or photograph
wildlife. They spend a total of $59.5 billion annually. Painters and writers
continue to capture the beauty of wetlands on canvas and paper, or through
cameras, and video and sound recorders. Others appreciate these wonderlands
through hiking, boating, and other recreational activities. Almost everyone
likes being on or near the water; part of the enjoyment is the varied,
Status and Trends
The lower 48 states contained an estimated 105.5 million acres of wetlands
in 1997. This is an area about the size of California. In the 1980s, an
estimated 170-200 million acres of wetland existed in Alaska-- covering
slightly more than half of the state-- while Hawaii had 52,000 acres. Next
to Alaska, Florida (11 million), Louisiana (8.8 million), Minnesota (8.7
million), and Texas (7.6 million) have the largest wetland acreage.
In the 1600s, over 220 million acres of wetlands are thought to have
existed in the lower 48 states. Since then, extensive losses have occurred,
and over half of our original wetlands have been drained and converted to
other uses. The years from the mid-1950s to the mid- 1970s were a time of
major wetland loss, but since then the rate of loss has decreased.
Between 1986 and 1997, an estimated 58,500 acres of wetlands were lost
each year in the conterminous United States. Various factors have
contributed to the decline in the loss rate including implementation and
enforcement of wetland protection measures and elimination of some
incentives for wetland drainage. Public education and outreach about the
value and functions of wetlands, private land initiatives, coastal
monitoring and protection programs, and wetland restoration and creation
actions have also helped reduce overall wetland losses.
In addition to these losses, many other wetlands have suffered
degradation of functions, although calculating the magnitude of the
degradation is difficult.
These losses, as well as degradation, have greatly diminished our
nation's wetlands resources; as a result, we no longer have the benefits
they provided. The increase in flood damages, drought damages, and the
declining bird populations are, in part, the result of wetlands degradation
Wetlands have been degraded in ways that are not as obvious as direct
physical destruction or degradation. Other threats have included chemical
contamination, excess nutrients, and sediment from air and water. Global
climate change could affect wetlands through increased air temperature;
shifts in precipitation; increased frequency of storms, droughts, and
floods; increased atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration; and sea level
rise. All of these impacts could affect species composition and wetland
Major Causes of Wetland
Loss and Degradation
- Dredging and stream channelization
- Deposition of fill material
- Diking and damming
- Tilling for crop production
- Air and water pollutants
- Changing nutrient levels
- Releasing toxic chemicals
- Introducing nonnative species
- Grazing by domestic animals
- Sea level rise
- Hurricanes and other storms
The federal government protects wetlands through regulations (like
Section 404 of the Clean Water Act), economic incentives and disincentives
(for example, tax deductions for selling or donating wetlands to a qualified
organization and the "Swampbuster" provisions of the Food Security Act),
cooperative programs, and acquisition (for example, establishing national
wildlife refuges). You can find out more about these mechanisms by calling
the Wetlands Hotline (1-800-832-7828).
the federal level, a number of states have enacted laws to regulate
activities in wetlands, and some counties and towns have adopted local
wetlands protection ordinances or have changed the way development is
permitted. Most coastal states have significantly reduced losses of coastal
wetlands through protective laws. Few states, however, have laws
specifically regulating activities in inland wetlands, although some states
and local governments have non-regulatory programs that help protect
partnerships to manage whole watersheds have developed among federal, state,
tribal, and local governments; nonprofit organizations; and private
landowners. The goal of these partnerships is to implement comprehensive,
integrated watershed protection approaches. A watershed approach recognizes
the inter- connectedness of water, land, and wetlands resources and results
in more complete solutions that address more of the factors causing wetland
degradation. The government achieves the restoration of former or degraded
wetlands under the Clean Water Act Section 404 program as well as through
watershed protection initiatives. Together, partners can share limited
resources to find the best solutions to protect and restore America's
regulation, economic incentives, and acquisition programs are important,
they alone cannot protect the majority of our remaining wetlands. Education
of the public and efforts in conjunction with states, local governments, and
private citizens are helping to protect wetlands and to increase
appreciation of the functions and values of wetlands. The rate of wetlands
loss has been slowing, but we still have work to do. You can be a part.
Approximately 75 percent of wetlands are privately owned, so individual
landowners are critical in protecting these national treasures.
School Children and Other Groups Visit Wetlands to
Learn About the Environment and its Relationship to Wildlife Protection and
What You Can Do
the efforts of governments and private conservation organizations, pressures
that destroy wetlands will continue. The problems of degradation of wetlands
from pollution, urban encroachment, groundwater withdrawals, partial
drainage, and other actions also require attention.
opportunities exist for private citizens, corporations, government agencies,
and other groups to work together to slow the rate of wetland loss and to
improve the quality of our remaining wetlands. First, state and local
governments need to be encouraged to establish programs to effectively
protect wetlands, especially inland wetlands, within their borders. Second,
because individual landowners and corporations own many of the nation's
wetlands, they are in a key position to determine the fate of wetlands on
their properties. Finally, all citizens, whether or not they own wetlands,
can help protect wetlands by supporting wetlands conservation initiatives.
are an important part of our national heritage. Our economic well-being and
quality of life largely depend on our nation's wealth of natural resources,
and wetlands are the vital link between our land and water resources. As
wetlands are lost, the remaining wetlands become even more valuable. We have
already lost many of our nation's wetlands since America was first settled.
We must now take positive steps to protect wetlands to ensure that the
functions and related values they provide will be preserved for present and
What You Can Do
Despite the efforts of
governments and private conservation organizations, pressures that
destroy wetlands will continue. The problems of degradation of wetlands
from pollution, urban encroachment, groundwater withdrawals, partial
drainage, and other actions also require attention.
opportunities exist for private citizens, corporations, government
agencies, and other groups to work together to slow the rate of wetland
loss and to improve the quality of our remaining wetlands. First,
state and local governments need to be encouraged to establish programs
to effectively protect wetlands, especially inland wetlands, within
their borders. Second, because individual landowners and corporations
own many of the nation's wetlands, they are in a key position to
determine the fate of wetlands on their properties. Finally, all
citizens, whether or not they own wetlands, can help protect wetlands by
supporting wetlands conservation initiatives.
are an important part of our national heritage. Our economic
well-being and quality of life largely depend on our nation's wealth of
natural resources, and wetlands are the vital link between our land and
water resources. As wetlands are lost, the remaining wetlands become
even more valuable. We have already lost many of our nation's wetlands
since America was first settled. We must now take positive steps to
protect wetlands to ensure that the functions and related values they
provide will be preserved for present and future generations.
How Can I Make a
find out where wetlands exist near your home, try to learn more about
them, and support educational efforts.
wetlands and watershed protection initiatives by public agencies and
federal duck stamps from your local post office to support wetland
the Clean Water Act Section 404 program and state regulatory programs
by reviewing public notices and, in appropriate cases, commenting on
neighbors, developers, and state and local governments to protect the
function and value of wetlands in your watershed.
draining or filling wetlands, seek compatible uses involving minimal
wetland alteration, such as waterfowl production, fur harvest, hay and
forage, wild rice production, hunting and trapping leases, and
selective timber harvest.
rather than wetlands sites for development projects and avoid wetland
alteration or degradation during project construction.
wetlands and adjacent buffer strips as open space.
about wetland restoration activities in your area; seek and support
opportunities to restore degraded wetlands.
Additional information concerning wetlands
protection can be obtained from the EPA Wetlands Hotline (contractor
at (800) 832-7828 from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm EST.
Additional information concerning wetlands protection
can be obtained from the EPA Wetlands Hotline (contractor operated)
at (800) 832-7828 from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm EST.
E-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Additional sources of information about wetlands can be
found on these Internet sites:
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
This Fish & Wildlife site has extensive resources about
wetland plants, including an interactive identification program, as well as
links to other resources on the Internet
United States Geological Survey (USGS) National Wetlands
Research Center (NWRC)
NWRC Education, Outreach, and Training
Illinois Department of Natural Resources wetlands
Prairie Rivers Network
Chicago Wilderness Illinois Wetlands
The Nature Conservancy Illinois
Illinois Department of Natural Resources
Of Frogs and Salamanders
The sound of spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) signals to us the end of
winter. These small eastern frogs, whose call signals the change of seasons,
need the wetlands to survive as do many of the frog and salamander species found
around the globe. This is why frogs disappear when their habitats are altered or
destroyed by land development and pollution.
Why be concerned about frogs and salamanders? You can probably come up with a
number of reasons, but a primary consideration is that all life is sacred and
connected to all other life. Frogs consume many insects that we dont like to
have around, such as mosquitoes. In turn, frogs become food for great blue
herons, river otters, largemouth bass, kingfishers and other wildlife.
Frogs and salamanders are also some of the best indicators we have of the
general state of the Earth. Because these amphibians can tell us when the land
is unhealthy, or the air is unclean, many scientists believe that frogs and
salamanders are issuing a global warning to humankind. Decreasing populations
worldwide, as well as the extinction of many species, have lead scientists to
study the distribution, abundance and health of frogs to try to determine if
habitat problems are the cause. Scientists are even more concerned about
salamanders. Many of them live in two worlds, moving back and forth between
uplands and wetlands. They come into a marsh to breed, then crawl up into the
forest to feed, search for a safe shelter, or spend the winter. Destruction of
either habitat is fatal to them.
Water pollution, air pollution, acid rain, and destruction of the wetland
environments lead to disappearance of frogs and other amphibian species. If you
can no longer hear the song of frogs where you have heard them before, you know
that the environment is in trouble the frogs are gone because the wetland
could no longer support them. This indicates that something is missing that they
need clean food and water, shelter, and a place to raise their young. Their
absence in the environment also means that species that depend on them also will
Like scientists, you can take field notes on frog populations. Besides
conducting frog counts, you can also record their sounds with a tape recorder.
Some research money is available for this work, so contact the Illinois
Department of Natural Resources to find out how you can participate.
If frogs are abundant in the wetland, pond or stream area that you visit, the
air and water quality are probably good. If there seems to be a shortage of
frogs, it is time to improve the air and water.
Remember that amphibians are valuable to the places where they live.
Populations of many species of animals have been harmed by over collecting, so
keep your frog or frog egg collecting to a minimum. A few frogs are great for
aquarium observations, but if we take too many from their homes, they will
vanish, just as they do from pollution.
Save Our Wetland An Audubon Book, by Ron Herschi
Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of Illinois, by Christopher A.
Phillips, Ronald A. Brandon, & Edward O. Moll
The Encyclopedia of Reptiles and Amphibians, edited by Dr. Tim Halliday &
Dr. Kraig Adler
Plains Leopard Frog