Conservation: Nature's Multipurpose Habitats

Wetlands provide a host of benefits in addition to their waterfowl habitat value
By Gildo Tori

One of the handiest pieces of equipment ever invented for waterfowl hunters and other outdoor recreationists is the multi-tool. You know, the gadget that houses a variety of retractable tools, including a pair of pliers, knives, a bottle opener, an awl, a file, and even a toothpick, among other implements. From my perspective, wetlands are Mother Nature's multi-tool. Beyond their obvious importance to waterfowl, wetlands perform a variety of functions that no other natural habitat can do quite as well. 

It's amazing how much public attitudes about wetlands have changed since Ducks Unlimited was founded 75 years ago. Back then, many people considered wetlands to be wastelands that harbored disease. In fact, 100 years ago the president of the American Health Association proposed a national campaign to eliminate all wetlands. 

Now we know that wetlands are invaluable from an ecological standpoint. Despite their importance to people and the environment, wetlands remain under attack. As sportsmen and conservationists, we must arm ourselves with the facts about wetlands, and then turn that knowledge into action.

Here are some key points to share with your family, friends, neighbors, and most important, elected representatives in Washington, D.C., and your state capital:

• Wetlands support a great abundance and diversity of waterfowl, other wildlife, and fish. From a biologist's point of view, I've always marveled at the great diversity and productivity of wetlands. While freshwater wetlands only cover 1 percent of the world's surface area, they support more than 40 percent of all plant and animal species. Wetlands are biologically rich because they exist where the land and water meet—occupying the best of both worlds.  
  
All of North America's waterfowl are dependent on wetlands. About one-third of all of North America's birds visit wetlands at some time during the year, and about half of the 188 animals that are listed as endangered or threatened are wetland dependent. In addition, 90 percent of the fish caught by the nation's recreational anglers rely on wetlands at some point during their life cycle, and wetlands are nurseries for the nation's commercial crab, shrimp, and salmon fisheries, which contribute $1.2 trillion each year to the U.S. economy. 

• Wetlands are used for recreation. As any waterfowler will tell you, wetlands are great places to hunt, fish, trap, boat, shoot photos, and watch wildlife. Collectively, hunting and wildlife watching generate more than $70 billion annually in economic activity. Recreational fishing is also highly dependent on productive wetlands, and the nation's anglers spend more than $42 billion each year on their hobby. 

Of course, most waterfowlers couldn't hunt at all without wetlands. A variety of wetland types—from prairie potholes and playa lakes to cypress swamps and shallow bays—play a crucial role in producing and supporting waterfowl throughout the year, and waterfowlers pursue the birds in all of these diverse habitats. 

• Wetlands reduce flooding and protect against storms. Wetlands associated with rivers and lakes capture and retain water, shortening the duration and reducing the severity of floods. Coastal wetlands serve as "horizontal levees" that protect homes, industry, and entire communities from devastating storm surges and high winds. In the United States, the protection provided by coastal wetlands has an estimated economic value of $23.2 billion a year. This benefit alone makes conserving and restoring coastal wetlands an excellent investment. 

• Wetlands improve water quality. Wetland soils and plants play a significant role in purifying water by removing nitrogen, phosphorus, and in some cases toxic chemicals. Wetlands also slow water flows, allowing sediment to settle out of the water column, making water clearer and cleaner downstream. A South Carolina study found that without the Congaree bottomland hardwood swamp, residents in this area would have to build a $5 million water-treatment facility to purify and filter their water supply. 

Similarly, DU Canada's groundbreaking research in Manitoba's Broughton's Creek watershed revealed that a 21 percent decline in wetlands there resulted in a 31 percent increase in nutrients flowing into Lake Manitoba. That's the equivalent of 114 tons of phosphorus, or a half-million bags of fertilizer, dumped into the lake each year. Restoring wetlands makes great sense from a water-quality perspective, and the benefit to waterfowl and other wildlife is an added bonus. 

• Wetlands recharge groundwater supplies. Water that collects in wetland basins percolates through the soil into the underlying aquifer, which in many areas is an essential source of drinking and irrigation water. During periods of drought, the slow discharge of groundwater into rivers, lakes, and wetlands helps maintain water levels and sustain aquatic life. The many intricate connections between groundwater, stream flows, and lake and reservoir levels make wetlands an essential part of the hydrologic cycle. In effect, there is no such thing as an "isolated wetland," as all wetlands are connected via the water cycle, which functions both above and below ground. 

• Wetlands need your help! The United States has lost more than half of its historical wetlands, and in many high-priority waterfowl conservation areas the losses have been even greater. Iowa, which once had 4 million to 6 million acres of prairie potholes, shallow lakes, and other highly productive wetlands, has lost more than 90 percent of its original wetland habitat. Similar losses have occurred in other midwestern states and California. As a result, breeding waterfowl populations in these areas have been significantly reduced from historical levels. 

With high commodity prices, inexpensive new drainage equipment and techniques, and hardier crop varieties, wetlands in the heart of the Prairie Pothole Region and in other key waterfowl-producing areas are in grave peril. It is crucial that Ducks Unlimited members and other supporters inform and educate their elected officials of the importance of wetlands conservation. Nature has provided us with a valuable multi-tool that serves people and wildlife in so many ways. Let's continue working together to ensure that wetlands—and the many benefits they provide—remain abundant today, tomorrow, and forever. 


Gildo Tori is director of public policy at DU's Great Lakes/Atlantic Regional Office in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Big Value in Wetlands After centuries of being taken for granted, the economic value of wetlands is finally being recognized. For example, we know that the loss of wetlands comes at a real cost to society. Fish and wildlife populations decline, reducing commercial and sport harvests and income generated by hunting, fishing, and other wildlife-associated recreation. Water quality is degraded, increasing water-treatment costs for local municipalities. In coastal areas and river floodplains, insurance premiums rise because of more frequent flooding and storm damage. And the depletion of aquifers increases the cost of irrigating crops. 
Researchers have recently examined the ecological goods and services provided by wetlands in specific areas and attempted to place a monetary value on them. A recent study on Michigan's Saginaw Bay estimated that the area's coastal wetlands and the ecological goods and services that they provide have a value of $10,573 per acre. Another, broader study estimated the value of these same habitats at $6,100 per acre. Any way you look at it, wetlands provide a host of ecological goods and services that have real economic value. Best of all, these wetland benefits can be enjoyed at little or no cost. These days, that's quite a bargain.