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May 11, 2011

What is a Wetland?

Although wetlands are often wet, a wetland might not be wet year-round.  In fact, some of the most important wetlands are only seasonally wet.  Wetlands are the link between the land and the water.  They are transition zones where the flow of water, the cycling of nutrients, and the energy of the sun meet to produce a unique ecosystem characterized by hydrology, soils, and vegetation - making these areas very important features of a watershed.  Using a watershed-based approach to wetland protection ensures that the whole system, including land, air, and water resources, is protected. 

Wetlands found in the United States fall into four general categories - marshes, swamps, bogs, and fens. 

Marshes are wetlands dominated by soft-stemmed vegetation.

Swamps are wetlands with mostly woody plants.

Bogs are freshwater wetlands, often formed in old glacial lakes, characterized by spongy peat deposits, evergreen trees and shrubs, and a floor covered by a thick carpet of sphagnum moss.

Fens are freshwater peat-forming wetlands covered mostly by grasses, sedges, reeds, and wildflowers.

The Good News:

Often called "nurseries of life," wetlands provide habitat for thousands of species of aquatic and terrestrial plants and animals.  Although wetlands are best known for being home to water lillies, turtles, frogs, snakes, alligators, and crocodiles, they also provide inportant habitat for waterfowl, fish, and mammals.  Migrating birds use wetlands to rest and feed during their cross-continental journeys and as nesting sites when they are at home.  As a result, wetland loss has a serious impact on these species.  Habitat degradation since the 1970s has been a leading cause of species extinction.

Two-thirds of the 10 million to 12 million waterfowl of the continental United States reproduce in the prarie pothole wetlands of the Midwest.  In the winter, millions of ducks can be found in the wetlands of the south-central United States.

Wetlands do more than provide habitat for plants and animals in the watershed.  When rivers overflow, wetlands help to absorb and slow floodwaters.  This ability to control floods can alleviate property damage and loss and can even save lives.  Wetlands also absorb excess nutrients, sediment, and other pollutants before they reach rivers, lakes, and other bodies of water.  They are great spots for canoeing, kayaking, hiking, bird-watching, and fishing.  And they make great classrooms for people of all ages. 

The forested wetland on the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia's Eastern Shore is part of the Atlantic Flyway, where shorebirds and waterfowl rest before they migrate south for the winter.

The Bad News:

Despite all the benefits provided by wetlands, the United States loses about 60,000 acres of wetlands each year.  The very runoff that wetlands help to clean can overload and contaminate these fragile ecosystems.  In addition, non-native species of plants and animals and global climate change contrubute to wetland loss and degradation. 

A watershed includes all the land that drains to a common body of water.  Using a watershed-based approach to protection ensures that the whole ecosystem is protected.

How can I help?

First, identify your watershed and find the wetlands in your neighborhood.  Learn more about them and share what you learn with someone you know.  Encourage neighbors, developers, and state and local governments to protect the functions and values of wetlands in your watershed. 

The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources a assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased, and not impaired, in value.
- Theodore Roosevelt

To prevent wetland loss or degradation, here are some suggestions:
  • Instead of draining or filling wetlands, find more compatible uses, such as waterfowl and wildlife habitat.
  • When developing your landscaping plan, keep wetlands in mind.  Plant native grasses or forested buffer strips along wetlands on your property to protect water quality.
  • Participate in a volunteer wetland monitoring program.
  • Plan to avoid wetlands when developing or improving a site.  Get technical assistance from your state environmnetal agency before you alter a wetland. 
  • Maintain wetlands and adjacent buffer strips as open space. 
  • Support your local watershed association.
  • Plan a wetland program or invite a wetland expert to speak at your school, club, youth group, or professional organization. 
Wetlands can be found in every county and climatic zone in the United States.

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