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Wetlands in chaos.

The old forester leaned back against a tree and scratched his chin. "When I was younger," he said reflectively, "we called them swamps. We didn't figure they were good for much of anything. I mean, some of them grow great trees, but what else do they do? They're just wet places in the woods." He scratched his chin again. "But the last few years, everybody has started calling them 'wetlands,' and talking about protecting them. Now people are even saying they have to protect entire watersheds. I find the entire thing real confusing. What's the difference between a swamp and a wetland? And why are people so set on saving every little bit of wetland? I'm beginning to think that it might be time for me to retire."

The young forester sat down against another tree and settled herself for a long talk. "What part do you find confusing?" she asked.

"Well, shoot, what is a wetland, anyway?" he asked. "Isn't it just a swamp?"

"Oh, it's much more than just a swamp," she said. "Take wetlands in the upper Midwest, for example. Out there, in prairie pothole country, are thousands of little ponds and sloughs, some no bigger than a small room. But those little wet spots are the breeding grounds for millions of ducks. As agriculture and development have eaten away at the potholes, our ducks have gotten into serious trouble."

Tate's Hell is another good example. Located in panhandle Florida just east of the Apalachicola River, Tate's Hell is 128,000 acres of titi swamp. It's not much to look at: just a dense sea of 10foot titi shrubs with southern pines mixed in. But the health of Tate's Hell as an ecosystem is crucial to the productivity of the Apalachicola's estuary. And that estuary is one of the nation's most important seafood harvesting areas--it's the basis of the economy for the entire area.

Or take the pine flatwoods. Flatwoods cover millions of acres of the southeastern coastal plain, from the Carolinas to Texas. Flatwoods pines are a valuable timber resource, providing everything from paper products to building materials.

The flatwoods--and other wetland areas--also are home to many species of plants and animals, quite a few of which are rare or endangered. This richness of species--which scientists call biodiversity--makes these areas some of the most precious in the world. Under the pines you can find pitcher plants, sundews, rare orchids. In other wetland areas you'll see plants unique to very specific flooding patterns. Call them swamps, call them wetlands, call them whatever you like--this nation's wet places are under the gun. While scientists and politicians argue about how to define weftands, these precious bits of landscape are slipping away. Some are being plowed under for agricultural use. Others are becoming polluted because of runoff from urban and industrial areas. Still others are stagnating and dying because their upslope watersheds have been developed and no longer send them life-giving water.

The future of many of our wetlands is in doubt; how they fare in the next decades will hinge not only on the outcome of the 1992 election but also on innovative strategies to protect and preserve them.

And the old forester is not alone in his confusion. The laws and rules that are supposed to protect wetlands are so involved that the average citizen could not read and understand them all in a lifetime. Add to that the fact that even conservationists can't agree on how to define a wetland, and you have a recipe for chaos.

So what, exactly, is a wetland? Almost everyone agrees that a wetland is wet land. It may be a cypress swamp, which is a forest of cypress trees that has water standing in it all year. Or it may be a mountain meadow, which is wet for only a couple of weeks a year, when snowmelt makes the ground boggy.

Then there's the matter of watersheds. Many conservationists say that protecting a wetland by itself isn't enough--we also must protect the entire area that drains into that wetland.

"We need to approach things in a more holistic way," says Tim Williams, staff director of Water Quality 2000, a Virginia-based group looking at U.S. waterquality policies. "We need to use a 'watershed' approach. You look at the health of an entire watershed. Then you try to set priorities and work out the best possible approach (to protect the area)."

As if all of this complexity weren't enough, wetlands, especially forested wetlands, have important effects on flooding and flood control. When rain falls, the forest soil, riddled with burrows of voles, earthworms, insects, and all manner of forest life, acts like a living sponge. The rain soaks into the soil and enters the groundwater. The forest releases the water slowly, as evapotranspiration, providing a steady source of moisture for the local climate. Removing the forest cover limits the soil's ability to absorb rainwater. The water runs off quickly, causing flash floods downslope or downstream. Since the soil doesn't retain much water, it doesn't have moisture to release. This land alteration can result in changes in the local climate. In some areas, rain clouds form over forested areas but not over clearcut areas.

Few people deny that we need to protect wetlands and their associated watersheds. The problem is that it won't happen until politicians and rule-makers come up with a well-defined legal description of wetlands that can be written into law. And that's tough to do.

That problem has its roots in the 1970s. Since that time, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers have been responsible for issuing permits for the filling and development of wetlands. Each agency wrote its own description of what it considered weflands to be. The descriptions were very different.

That led to a lot of confusion. So in 1989, the two agencies got together and published a wetlands manual that is essentially a combination of their definitions. Now, at the insistence of the Bush administration, the agencies are revising that manual.

This revision is leading to debate between groups involved in wetlands use and conservation. Environmentalists say the President has reneged on his "nonet-loss" promise, and that far too many acres of valuable wetlands are being lost each year. They fear the rewrite will result in many areas now classified as wetlands losing that designation, and thus losing protection.

"We've lost far too many wetlands over the course of the last century already," says Steve Moyer, a wetlands specialist at the National Wildlife Federation. "We really ought to be focusing as hard as we can on holding onto the remaining ones."

The timber industry, on the other hand, feels its back is to the wall. Industry representatives worry that the manual rewrite will result in more acres being classified as wetlands, making the job of supplying the country's timber needs more difficult.

"We're talking about a sizable portion of the kind of area that is traditionally forested," says Bill Baughman, vice president and timberlands division manager for Westvaco. "The real issue is whether we're allowed to continue to practice forestry, managed forestry, on forested wetlands."

So who's right?


Seventy to 80 percent of the wetlands in this country are on private land, in parcels ranging from backyard-size up to thousands of acres. As a result, laws and rules protecting wetlands and other water resources affect everyone from individual landowners to large timber and oil companies.

Wetlands provide everything from recreation to waterquality control, says Moyer.

"They filter out a lot of pollurants that would otherwise go into streams and rivers and groundwater," he says. "They act as sponges as well, soaking up floodwaters and releasing them slowly, thereby mitigating floods." These characteristics are two of wetlands' most important purposes from a human point of view.

Moyer says these areas, especially bottomland hardwood wetlands, have many wildlife values as well. "They're vital as wintering habitat for waterfowl, and for fish production. They're often spawning grounds for the river fishes in spring. And a lot of these same areas provide fiber and wood to the timber industry."

According to Moyer, the National Wildlife Federation believes that some timber harvesting can occur in forested wetlands without causing great harm to the land. But he says current timber practices rarely provide the protection these sites need.

"There are the large forestry operations, especially in the Southeast, where mixed pine/hardwood forested wetlands are clearcut and converted completely to pine plantations," he says. "This is a problem because we lose all the biological diversity of those wetland systems. Also, the water flow that would normally occur across and through and around the forested wetlands is damaged by the diversions that are done to grow those pines. That's a big problem in North and South Carolina and Georgia."

Moyer says that he hopes new laws will tighten restrictions on what the timber industry can do in wetlands. "I would hope that new laws would move the industry along at doing a better job of protecting the few remaining natural wetlands that we have."


Wetland forests provide valuable resources to the timber industry. We're not talking about small wet places here; we're talking about thousands of acres of timberland.

Industry makes use of two main types of forested wetlands. One is bottomland hardwood areas.

"These are the most fertile sites," said one observer. "Trees grow like crazy in them because they get a fresh influx of sediment from the uplands every year. They're tremendously valuable from a timber-production standpoint; the most valuable species tend to grow there. If they are declared off-limits, it will be a big economic loss to the industry."

The second type of forested wetland that is of much value to the timber industry is southern pine flatwoods.

"These aren't lands adjacent to major streams," says Westvaco's Bill Baughman. "Flatwoods are just broad, flat swamps that get wet after a heavy rain. They're the kind of area that's been farmed and forested."

If the revised manual classifies flatwoods as wetlands, timber interests may face restrictions on how they can operate in these areas. Baughman says this isn't necessary.

"I think it's important that we maintain a diversity of habitats to keep all the ecosystems we want to protect alive and functioning," he says. "But many of these forested wetlands have been managed for forestry for years, and they're still forested wetlands. We're still saying they are areas we want to preserve and protect. We've been able to harvest these areas and grow trees on them for two or three generations, and they're still functioning as we want them to function. Why are we afraid to continue to practice forestry on them? We have all the proof we need that these areas can be managed for forestry and still function as wetlands."


One issue that will be critical to private owners of wetlands in the next few years will be that of constitutional "taking." This issue is grounded in the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, which says that the government cannot take private property for public use without paying for it.

Other laws go on to say that when the government regulates private property, if the regulations go so far as to deny the landowner reasonable use of his or her land, that, too, may amount to a "taking." Under these circumstances, the government must pay the landowner for the economic value that is being lost.

A case now before the Supreme Court may have broad implications concerning what compensation wetland owners may receive from the government if they are unable to use their property in ways they would like. In 1986, a Mr. Lucas purchased two lots on a South Carolina barrier beach--one to build his own home on and one for development--for almost $1 million. Then, in 1988, the South Carolina legislature established a setback line on the state's beaches. Lucas's lots wound up on the seaward side of the line. He was not allowed to build on the two lots, even though his neighbors on both sides already had done so. So there he sits, with two very expensive lots on which he cannot build, and that now have substantially reduced value.

Lucas went to the South Carolina courts and claimed a violation of his Fifth Amendment rights. The trial court awarded him the full market value of the property. The South Carolina Supreme Court reversed the decision, saying it was not a taking. The federal Supreme Court is now looking at the case.

"The case raises the broader question of what is the government's authority to regulate private activities that cause harm to the community or to neighboring property owners," says John Echeverria, counsel to the National Audubon Society. "In other words, what is the scope of government authority to prevent harm to the community without paying compensation to landowners who are adversely affected by those regulations? That's the same legal argument that applies in a wetlands context. During oral arguments, one of the justices made very clear the connection between this case and wetlands. If the Court resolves this case on its merits, it's likely to provide important guidance on how far government wetlands regulations can go."

Put another way, if the Supreme Court rules against Lucas's claim, wetland forest owners may face strict controls on their activities in wetlands, including timbering, without financial compensation for income they expected to get but did not. On the other hand, if the Court rules in Lucas's favor, wetland forest owners whose timbering activities are restricted by the government may be able to sue for lost income--and get it. And they won't have to wait long to find out; the Court is supposed to render its decision sometime this summer.


Wetlands are important as habitat and valuable for timber production. But they also provide direct benefits to people who recreate in them.

Dr. Dennis Crowe, a recreation and tourism specialist with Western Illinois University, points to the many forms of recreation available in wetland areas, among them hunting and fishing. Even small, seasonal wetlands can offer excellent duck hunting in winter. Deer and turkeys come into swamps to feed and seek cover.

"For the serious birdwatcher looking to add to his life list," says Crowe, "or the weekend watcher, wetlands are incredibly rich sources for birders."

Others come for more esoteric pursuits. "Some tap the spring sap flow for maple sugar," Crowe says. "In the far north and down in Florida, visitors bring canoes, airboats, and all-terrain vehicles and use them for exploring. Unfortunately, that kind of exploration in wetlands leaves pretty heavy footprints sometimes.

"And there are other problems too-- some people come in to gather plants that are in limited supply, to create gardens in other places."

None of the issues surrounding water, wetlands, and wetland forests is likely to be resolved soon. At worst, the new wetlands manual that the EPA and the Corps of Engineers are working on may cloud the matter so much that landowners and regulators will spend years in court trying to resolve what is and is not a wetland.

But in some quarters at least, people are taking an innovative approach to wetlands protection.

"Regulation is not the only way to protect forested wetlands," says Moyer. "Often a better way is through conservation easements, or acquisition of forested wetlands by local or state governments or even sometimes the federal government."

The state of Georgia is using another technique. A new law lets Georgia landowners set aside parcels of sensitive land without losing income from the property, and encourages timber owners to keep their land in trees at the same time. The law identifies six types of lands as environmentally sensitive: wetlands, steep mountain slopes, endangered-species habitat, river floodplains, undeveloped barrier islands, and significant groundwater-recharge areas.

An area must be in relatively pristine condition, and must be certified as environmentally sensitive by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. The landowner then enters into an agreement with the local tax assessor to leave the land as it is for 10 years. The tax assessor is required to adjust the property-tax rate on the area. The timberland provision of the law allows for property-tax incentives to encourage landowners to keep land in forestry production. Backers of the new law hope it will provide incentive for people to protect sensitive areas and keep timberland in forest production.

"So you see," the young forester said, "a swamp isn't simply a swamp. It's much, much more."

The old forester looked out across the pitcher-plant savannah that lay just beyond the piney woods where they sat. Finally he said, "Who'd have thought a wet place would mean that much?"

"Come on," said the young forester, "let's take a walk, I want to show you the orchids and the sundews, the lady's slippers and the bog buttons--all the little firings that make a wetland what it is." And she did.


Once upon a time their was a beautiful meandering stream inhabited by creatures large and small. On the banks stood groves of cotto,woods, willows, and aspens overtopping a variety of grasses, wildflowers, sedges, and brush, The water was often c[can enough to quench your thirst

That was the scene decades ago in many riparian areas--defined as vegetative areas bordering watercourses--before water diversions and agricultural and livestock land uses drastically changed the landscape. A farsighted restoration project on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) public domain in southeastern Arizona holds much promise for restoring damaged riparian areas in western states.

In the arid project area near the town of Safford, what was once a reasonably lush riparian ecosystem is now a degraded place with unstable banks, excessive soil movement, and deteriorated fish and wildlife habitat, The stream is little more than a dry gully whose algae-choked potholes and adjacent riparian terraces cannot recharge the aquifer with life-sustaining water.

According to BLM forester Bill Torgerson, "The place has never been visited by a forester because it has had no trees or forests for so long." That changed recently when he went there to review a demonstration project designed to put trees back where they once grew. This venture is an important dimension of the Global ReLeaf Heritage Forests program, aimed at putting private-sector muscle to work healing damaged forest ecosystems.

The project aims to transplant riparian terrace species along 20 miles of stream and at 15 isolated springs. Major partners are BLM's Safford District, Safford Future Farmers of America, and American Forests. Financial support for this five-year project is being provided by Robert Gardner of New York as a statement of his concern for the environment.

The plantings will include cottonwood and willow, easily available from local and commercial sources, But other native riparian terrace species-- such as Arizona walnut, white oak, box eider, California buckthorn, southern chokecherry, and velvet ash--are harder to come by, Their seeds are being collected by the Future Farmers of America and sown in the Safford High School Land Laboratory for planting later on.

There are many riparian areas throughout the U.S. that need fixing, For further information about this activity, or if you would like to have trees planted for you on these sites, write Global ReLeaf Heritage Forests, P.O. Box 2000, Washington, DC. 22013,

-- Carolee Boyles-Sprenkel writes about natural-resource topics from her home in Quincy, Florida.
COPYRIGHT 1992 American Forests
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Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Watershed Wars; includes related articles; preservation of biotic ecosystems
Author:Boyles-Sprenkel, Carolee
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jul 1, 1992
Previous Article:The greening of the Corps.
Next Article:The Mazama survivor.

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