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May 25, 2011

What's the Point of a Wetland?

Although large-scale benefits of functions can be valued, determining the value of individual wetlands is difficult because they differ widely and do not all perform the same functions or perform functions equally well. We all must understand that impacts on wetland functions can eliminate or diminish the values of wetlands.

Water storage:
Wetlands function like natural tubs or sponges, storing water and slowly releasing it.  This process slows the water's momentum and erosive potential, reduces flood heights, and allows for ground water recharge, which contributes to base flow to surface water systems during dry periods.  Although a small wetland might not store much water, a network of many small wetlands can store an enormous amount of water.  The ability of wetlands to store floodwaters reduces the risk of costly property damage and loss of life - benefits that have economic value to us. 

The flooding of the Mississippi River Basin in the spring of 2011 has caused billions of dollars in property damage, resulted in many deaths, and has devasted the lives of thousands.   Historically, over 20 million acres of wetlands in this area had been drained or filled for either commercial, residential, or agricultural purposes.  If the wetlands had been preserved rather than drained or filled, most of this damage could have been avoided. 

Water filtration:
After being slowed by a wetland, water moves around plants, allowing the suspended sediment to drop out and settle to the wetland floor.  Nutrients from fertilizer application, manure, leaking septic tanks, and municipal sewage that are dissolved in the water are often absorbed by plant roots and microorganisms in the soil.  Other pollutants stick to soil particles.  In many cases, this filtration process removes much of the water's nutrient and pollutant load by the time it leaves a wetland.  Some types of wetlands are so good at this filtration function that envrionmnetal managers construct similar artificial wetlands to treat storm water and wastewater. 

Biological productivity:
Wetlands are some of the most biologically productive natural ecosystems in the world, comparable to tropical rain forests and coral reefs in their productivity and the diversity of species they support.  Abundant vegetation and shallow water provide diverse habitats for fish and wildlife.  Aquatic plant life flourishes in the nutrient-rich environment, and energy converted by the plants is passed up the food chain to fish, waterfowl, and other wildlife and to us as well. 

Did you know?
  • An acre of wetland can store 1-1.5 million gallons of floodwater.
  • Up to one-half of North American bird species nest or feed in wetlands.
  • Although wetlands keep only about 5% of the total land surface in the conterminous United States, they are home to 31% of our plant species. 
These beneficial services, considered valuable to socities worldwide, are the result of the inherent and unique natural characteristics of wetlands. 

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.

One Year Later and Congress Has Learned Nothing

Instead of making it harder for oil companies like Shell to drill in the icy waters of the Arctic Ocean, The House of Representatives just voted to make it easier.  If this legislation becomes law, the oil industry will be even less regulated now than it was a year ago before the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. 

And to make matters worse, Shell already gets millions in subsidies every year from the U.S. government.  In fact, last year Shell paid effectively no taxes at all to the U.S. government.  Congress is giving them more incentive to take unacceptable risks with our national treasures.  It's time to put an end to this dangerous game.  We have a chance to do just that. 

As soon as tomorrow, Congress will be voting on a bill that would cut billions of dollars worth of subsidies to oil companies like Shell.  But the industry and their friends in Washington are currently doing everything they can to stop that from happening.  That's why you need to speak up and send a message to your members of Congress. 

Congress needs to hear your voice.  Ask your members of Congress to put an end to government subsidies to the oil industry now. 

Shell just submitted plans to drill up to ten new wells in Alaska's Arctic Ocean over the next two years using the same faulty tecnology that BP uses in the Gulf.  But Shell's plans in the shallow waters of the Arctic are even more dangerous than BP's are in the Gulf and run a higher risk of blowouts, according to government data. 

Shell isn't prepared for a disaster in the Arctic Ocean.  No one is.  It's a known fact that there is no way to effectively clean up an oil spill in the Arctic's harsh conditions.  All they care about is their corporate bottom line. 

Congress should be fighting for you.  It's your money, and it's our land.  The vote could be happening as soon as tomorrow.  Contact your members of Congress today and ask them to put an end to government subsidies to the oil industry before it's too late. 

(content - Melanie Duchin, Greenpeace Arctic Campaigner)

American Wetland Month

May is the month to recognize and celebrate the wonderful ways wetlands enrich the environment and people.  It is a time to give back to the environment by learning more about wetlands and participating in the many scheduled events. 

Why celebrate wetlands?

Wetlands are among the most valuable but least understood of all natural resources.  They provide rich habitat for wildlife.  They are places in which many animals and birds build nests and raise their young.  Migrating birds stop over in wetlands to rest and to feed.  We celebrate wetlands each May when they are teeming with new animal and plant life. 

Wetlands benefit our communities as well.  They replenish and clean water supplies and reduce flood risks, provide recreational opportunities and aesthetic benefits.  They serve as sites for scientific research and education, and benefit commercial fishing. 

Unfortunately, wetlands have been misundserstood for many years, often viewed as wastelands to be drained and converted to other uses.  But if wetlands disappear, water will not be as clean, fish and bird populations will suffer, and the frequency and severity of floods will increase.  Americans have begun to recognize the value of wetlands, and the rate of loss has declined dramatically over the last 30 years.  It is important that we continue to stop the loss of wetlands and begin to achieve a net gain through better management and restoration.  Learn how you can help by discovering more about wetlands and participating in events celebrating American Wetlands Month.

Wetland protection and you:

Government regulations and zoning restrictions are not enough to protect and restore wetlands. 
Citizens must also participate in wetland protection efforts.  You can identify your watershed and find any wetlands in your neighborhood by visiting National Wetlands Inventory.  Caring, devoted volunteers can make a big difference.

May 5, 2011

Where Bluebonnets Abound - Celebrating America's Wildflowers

The month of May reminds me of springtime back home, and by back home I mean Texas. 

I actually only lived there for a little over a decade.  However, the youngest two of my family were the only ones born there, and my parents still live there.  Over time we had gradually beome "native Texans."  And every year in May we would drive out to the country, pull off to the side of the road, and enter the great blue sea of bluebonnets for our family pictures. 

"No self-respectin' Texan passes up a photo-op with the bluebonnets."  (A comment my mother was known to make every year.) 

And it was true!  Every spring we would see others among the state's official wildflower posing in front of cameras.  The side of the road usually looked like a parking lot with everyone pulled over.  And the amazing thing was, we never accidentally got anyone else in our shots!  The fields where the bluebonnets grew were always so huge everyone was able to have their own space! 

I never realized how unique our situation was with an entire state celebrating this special wildflower.  After I moved away from Texas I remember visiting a friend where I currently live - a friend that had never lived in Texas.  And as I was going through her family's photo album that they gave me to look at I asked, "Where's your pictures with your state's wildflower?" 
They looked at me as if I had just asked them if I could pee on their carpet. 

So I explained... that families in Texas anually take photos with our bluebonnets,... that whenever I went to my friends' houses there were always framed pictures of children surrounded by bluebonnets hanging on the walls or sitting on shelves,... that my mom had an album labeled "bluebonnets only." 
"Really?  We never do that,"  I was told.  Then they asked, "We have a state wildflower?"
Very soon after that I realized it's practically a "Texas only" thing - which is sad. 

My family and I keep the wildflower tradition alive every May by visiting our current state's wildflower:  the black-eyed susan.
Though they aren't nealy as abundant as the bluebonnets were in Texas, they are still very pretty. 

This week we celebrate nature's bounty of wildflowers across the nation for National Wildflower Week

Across the nation, wildflowers growing beside highways, in gardens and elsewhere are valued for their natural beauty.  As Lady Bird Johnson (founder of National Wildflower Week) once said, "These and other native plants give us a sense of where we are in this great land of ours."

National Wildflower Week aims not only to highlight wildflowers' beauty, but to encourage citizens to understand their value and take steps to protect them.  Wildflowers and native plants help conserve water, reduce mowing costs, provide habitat for birds, butterflies and other wildlife and protect the soil from erosion.  In addition, native plants often require less resources to maintain than plants that aren't native to a region. 

But many wildflowers nationally are in danger from habitat loss, non-native plants that grow aggressively and compete for resources (called invasive plants) among other factors. 

How do I celebrate National Wildflower Week?

Participate in a local event.
Chances are, there is a wildflower event happening in your neighborhood.  Visit the National Organizations Directory to find a native plant society, conservation group, botanical garden or other plant related organizations where you live. 

Wildflower walks and garden visits.
Explore for yourself.  Bring a field guide.  Visit a sanctuary, state or local park, national forest or refuge, public or private garden, and other locations to experience the joy and beauty of wildflowers. 

Wildflower beautifation projects.
Introduce native wildflowers along roadsides, in parks, and around churches, schools, and other public and private buildings.  Request government and private support for such projects.  Encourage local nurseries and garden centers to stock native plants and seeds.

Celebrating wildflowers.
The national forests, national parks, national wildlife refuges, grasslands, and millions of acres of public lands are truly America's wildflower gardens.  Celebrating Wildflowers  is a website that promotes the many programs featuring the important role that the nations's public lands, over 630 million acres, play in providing diverse habitats for much of America's flora.


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