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According to a 1994 federal government report tided "Status of Alaska Wetlands," complied under the auspices of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Alaska Region, more than half of Alaska's entire surface area is, by federal definition, wetland and/or deepwater habitat.

That's amazing. It is even more amazing when compared to all of the Lower 48 contiguous states put together, where wetlands and deepwater habitat occupy only 9.3 percent of the surface area.

While many people know about Alaska's wetlands and deep-water habitat, most have no real concept of just how vast and complex they really are. Just trying to get one's mind wrapped around Alaska's great size of 586,412 square miles, or 365 million acres, is tough enough. Yet, understanding the state's wetlands and deep-water habitat is key to truly understanding Alaska and the problems associated with development of any kind.

Wetlands in Alaska include bogs, muskegs, wet and moist tundra, fens, marshes, swamps, mud flats and salt marshes. Deep-water habitats include lakes, bays, sounds, fjords, lagoons and inlets.

In general terms, wetland is land that is saturation with water, a dominant factor determining the nature of soil development. Wetlands are also defined by the types of plant and animal communities living in the soil and on their surfaces.

Technically speaking, wetlands are lands transitional between terrestrial and aquatic systems where the water table is usually at or near the surface; or land that is covered by shallow water at some time during each year's growing season.

Deep-water habitats are made up of certain permanently flooded lands. For example, in saltwater areas, the separation between wetland and deep-water habitat coincides with the elevation of the extreme low water of spring tide. In lakes and rivers, the separation is at a depth of two meters (6.6 feet) below low water.

Most regions of Alaska have a land surface that includes extensive areas of wetlands. As far back as 1885, 12 years before the great gold rush to Alaska and the Yukon, Lt. Henry T. Allen, Second United States Cavalry, on a little-known yet extraordinary expedition to explore Alaska by raft and on foot, observed, "... the entire face of the country is covered with a deep moss, nearly as thoroughly saturated as a wet sponge, and that but a few inches below this is a bed of rock, frozen ground or ice that prevents the water from sinking."

In the northern and western parts of the state there are great treeless expanses of moist and wet tundra underlain by permafrost or perennially frozen ground. There, wetland conditions occur because the frozen layer traps water at or near the soil surface, a constant problem for many Native villages trying to modernize their communities and install simple sewer and water systems.

In Interior Alaska, where permafrost also plays a, significant role, wetlands comprise millions of acres of black spruce muskeg and floodplain dominated by deciduous shrubs, grasses and sedges.

Wetlands in Alaska can range in elevation from tidal systems at sea level to moist tundra areas in high alpine zones. In mountainous areas such as Northern Alaska's Brooks Range, or Southcentral and Southeast Alaska's coastal mountains, wetlands have developed in drainages and on vegetated slopes. In fact, wetlands in Alaska are about as common on slopes as they are in lowland sites and depressions.

One of the most important aspects of Alaska's wetlands is their role as a breeding ground for so many species of waterfowl and shorebirds. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, nationally more than 70,000 swans, at least a million geese and more than 12 million ducks depend on U.S. wetlands.

These figures include more than half of the continental populations of tundra and trumpeter swans, as well as all, or most, of the continental populations of eight species and subspecies of geese.

In recent years, (since 1993) in cooperation with Ducks Unlimited, USFWS began using advanced satellite technology as a research tool to better understand Alaska's vast wetlands and deep-water habitat. They discovered that Steller's Eider and Spectacled Eider ducks, both listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, were using specific small areas on Alaska's North Slope for summer nesting, rearing and molting grounds.

It was also discovered that these birds were wintering in certain areas of Southwestern and Southcentral Alaska coastal waters. Because of these discoveries, USFWS sought, through a court order, to have several large areas of Alaska's wetland and deep-water habitats declared "critical habitat" for these two species.

The areas USFWS wanted to have declared critical habitat for Spectacled Eider encompass 74,500 square miles of the North Slope and the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, including 25 miles out to sea. It was also seeking to have another 25,000 square miles of Northern Alaska, plus the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta (around to and including all of Kodiak Island), and Cook Inlet (as far north as Anchor Point), as critical habitat for the Steller's Eider.

That didn't happen. However, USFWS is satisfied that what they did get will protect the birds without stopping development.

In addition, USFWS says that in recent years Alaska's wetlands have, on average, supported 30 percent of the continental populations of northern pintails, 24 percent of American wigeons, 19 percent of scaup, 18 percent of canvasbacks, and 13 percent of green-winged teal. Nearly all of the Pacific Flyway's black brant feed on the rich eelgrass beds at Isembek Lagoon on the Alaska Peninsula.

Other specific Alaska wetlands along these migration routes provide areas of rest and feeding as huge flocks of waterfowl and shorebirds take to the skies each spring and fall. These specific wetlands provide a highly concentrated food source to fuel these long journeys. And they take on even more importance during years when U.S. prairie states and Canadian provinces suffer from drought.

Many mammals also use Alaska's wetlands. Beaver and muskrat spend most of their lives there, while other species use wetlands primarily as feeding and resting areas. Moose commonly feed on submerged vegetation in deep marshes and shallow ponds.

Herds of caribou in Northern Alaska gather into large aggregations and migrate from upland wetlands to coastal wetlands in the spring and summer. They use these moist tundra areas on the North Slope for calving and feeding. They also use the area's nonvegetated wetlands-such as gravel bars and coastal beaches-where there is often a breeze, to escape incessant insect harassment.

The importance of Alaska's wetlands as fish habitat cannot be overstated either. Many species rely on coastal wetlands and stream-side marshes for food and spawning grounds. Wetlands also act as nurseries that help ensure species survival.

Other wetlands adjacent to rivers and streams help to regulate stream flow in channels used by fish. For example, five species of salmon move between fresh water and saltwater, and depend on both coastal and riparian wetlands.

Wetlands are important to humans as well. They serve the vital function of temporarily storing floodwaters. In so doing, they help slow the velocity of the water and reduce its erosive potential. This helps protect downstream properties from flood damage, especially in Alaska's major towns and cities where development has increased the rate and volume of surface water runoff.

While overall, only one-tenth of one percent of Alaska's wetlands have. been lost, the figures are not so good for the state's major population centers. In Anchorage, for example, nearly 50 percent of its wetlands have been lost to development.

As we learn more about our wetlands and deep-water habitats, we are finding ways to protect and preserve them. We are learning that development does not have to equal destruction of these vital resources. On the North Slope, for example, new technologies and methods have been steadily reducing the footprint left by the oil industry as producers explore and drill for oil. With directional drilling, oil corporations can now reach multiple reservoirs from one drill pad.

Alaska's mining industry, guided by some of the most enlightened environmental protection laws in the nation, is careful to disturb only those lands absolutely necessary to achieve its goals. And mine operators quickly reclaim the land they do disturb.

State and municipal planners are now guiding expansion in ways that allow for the preservation of vital wetlands while providing for the needs of a growing population.

So, it seems clear that as Alaska moves into the new century, with its wetlands still 99.9 percent intact, its very low rate of loss is likely to stay that way.

Managing Alaska's Wetlands

The federal government is by far the largest landowner in Alaska with more than half of the state's 365 million acres. What the government doesn't own outright, it often controls by act of Congress, or as a result of litigation. As such, most of the management of Alaska's wetlands falls to the government. It is a complex and daunting task.

"Alaska is unique in that so much of its surface area is wetlands," says John Payne, senior wildlife biologist for the U. S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management. "And because they are so vast and complex, management models we've developed for other areas don't always apply up here. Sometimes they have to be modified. In some areas, we're still learning about how and why things work the way they do."

A case in point, Payne explains, is the great caribou herds that use Alaska's North Slope for calving and for feeding grounds in the short spring and summer seasons. "In some years, they migrate to Canada's high arctic instead of Alaska, and we're still not totally sure why yet.

"However, we're now using the latest satellite and computer technology to aid our on-the-ground work. It gives us information and insights we've never had before."

An example of this involves a recent study in the 23.4-million-acre National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska-an area to the west of the giant oil fields at Prudhoe Bay.

"Because of the oil industry's increasing interest in the NPR-A," says Payne, "the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, BLM and Ducks Unlimited Inc. began studying the area more closely in 1992.

"With the aid of satellite imaging, we've been able to determine that, for whatever reason, in all that wide expanse of the Arctic coastal plain, three species of water fowl-the Brant/Canada Goose, the Steller's Eider and the Spectacled Eider-nest in incredibly small parts of the reserve. However, when you look at it, that country up there all looks pretty much the same. Yet, there must be some reason why they nest in just these areas. So, we'll now go in and try to determine how and why that area is different from the surrounding wetlands."

Larry Reeder is chief of the regulatory branch of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Alaska District. His agency has served a regulatory function for activities in the nation's waters since 1890. That role was expanded when Section 404 of the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972. In subsequent years, court rulings and litigation have further expanded the Corps' responsibilities in U.S. waters.

"The Section 404 program's geographic jurisdiction extends to all waters of the United States," says Reeder. "That includes all tidal waters; all interstate waters; and all lakes, rivers and streams that are part of the surface tributary system to ocean waters, their adjacent wetlands, and isolated navigable waters that are used for commerce."

Because of Alaska's vast wetland acreage, almost any construction or development taking place anywhere in the state, impacts, or is impacted by, wetlands or deep-water habitat.

While the Environmental Protection Agency and the Corps share Section 404 regulatory authority, it is the Corps that makes permit decisions for any construction or development activity on wetlands.

"In deciding whether to grant a permit, the Corps must apply the Clean Water Act 404(b)(1) guidelines and weigh the need to protect such resources against the benefits of the proposed development," Reeder explains. "Corps' policy is to encourage applicants to avoid damage to wetlands and to other U.S. waters whenever possible, minimize the unavoidable damage, and take measures to compensate for whatever damage is done.

"Nationwide, about three percent of all request for permits are denied," Reeder continues. "Although some are withdrawn by the applicant during the process, in Alaska approximately 80 percent are substantially modified to protect natural resources as part of our decision-making process before issuance."

The Corps also has responsibility in two other areas as well. Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899 prohibits an obstruction or alteration of navigable waters of the U.S. without a Corps-issued permit. Section 103 of the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act of 1972 requires a Corps permit for the transportation of any dredged material that is to be dumped into the ocean.

Wetland of Alaska (Catagories & Examples)

Estuarine subtidal

* Open water of bays

* Inlets

Esturaine intertidal nonvegetated

* Mud and sand flats

* Beaches

Estuarine vegetated

* Salt marsh

Palustrine unconsolidated shore

* Pond flats

* Beaches

Palustrine open water

* Open water ponds

Palustrine aquatic beds

* Floating and submerged aquatic vegetation

Palustrine emergent-saturated

* Moist tussock tundra

* Sedge bogs

Palustrine scrub/shrub-flooded

* Shrub swamps

Palustrine scrub/shrub-saturated

* Moist shrub tundra

* Shrub bogs/muskegs

Palustrine emergent-flooded

* Wet sedge

* Grass tundra and marshes

Palustrine forested-saturated

* Forested bogs/muskegs

Palustrine forested-flooded

* Forested swamps


* Lakes

Marine intertidal

* Ocean shoreline
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Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2001
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