The Future of Wetland Conservation


"The marsh environment is wonderfully intricate, and it is irreplaceable." (Hay & Farb)

Our shortsightedness has resulted in the loss of over 50% of our nations wetlands. In Massachusetts wetland managers believe we have lost around 28% of our wetlands, although this is a conservative estimate. Some believe that the loss of wetlands in Massachusetts is greater (up to 42%), but the lack of historical information makes it impossible to determine exactly what percentage has been lost (Foote-Smith et al. 1991).
It is evident that Bostonís coastline has changed drastically since the first settlers arrived in the area. Its few remaining salt marshes have many areas with restricted tidal flow and are often threatened by non-point source pollution. In Massachusetts the impact of human activities on these coastal marshes "encouraged" the first wetland protection laws and scientific research so we could better understand the ecology of the marsh. Thanks to scientific research identifying the serious consequences of wetland loss, we have finally realized the value of these environments. This awakening is exemplified by the many federal and state laws now requiring wetland protection. Today management goals are based on protection, preservation, and restoration, rather than destruction.

In spite of the general understanding that wetlands are important and should be protected, there is still a heavy debate over what wetland policies should cover. We will summarize the three (1,2,3) perspectives that surface most often in these debates. The following summaries are based on full discussions presented in a publication by Environmental Issues Forums concerning Wetland issues (Archie 1992). Our vision for the future of wetland conservation combines many of the principles entrained in all three arguments: Strive for a no loss policy, restoration, and education.

Perspective #1

  The premise behind this perspective is that some wetlands should be preserved completely in their natural state, some wetlands can supply a variety of human benefits and uses (haying, hunting, recreation), and some wetlands are of little value to society and therefore would be more beneficial if drained, filled, or mined. Unfortunately the classification of wetlands is somewhat subjective and wetland habitats that are not deemed beneficial to society, yet are very beneficial as wildlife habitats, may be overlooked and designated for "improvement".

  Supporters of this position believe the government should be instrumental in wetland protection and management decisions. The government should be responsible for collecting the information that is vital to good management decisions. Primarily this creates the need for a thorough inventory of all of our wetlands before we can make informed decisions. We need to understand where our wetlands are and what are the natural functions each of these wetlands perform. Once we have all of this information we can make informed decisions regarding the benefits of preserving some natural wetlands as compared to the benefits of altering or managing them to "enhance" their functional value.

  We live in a selfish society. Therefore identifying the benefits wetlands provide US is used as an effective means to focus conservation efforts on critically important wetland habitats so that they are preserved for generations to come. Supporters of this perspective, however, also believe that restoration or creation of wetlands can provide equally valuable functions to society. The success of such projects, however, has yet to be realized since we are only beginning to understand the many physical and biological processes that influence natural marshes.

  Our government agencies are currently implementing many of the programs that supporters of this first perspective are striving for. There are wetland inventory programs within Massachusetts and throughout the US. Additionally, wetland management does currently rely on mitigation to balance the loss of wetlands.


Perspective #2

  Many Americans favor an approach to wetlands policy in which the government takes a back seat to the property owner, a policy based on private stewardship. Most North American wetlands are in private hands and, according to proponents of this approach,  landowners should be helped and encouraged to make wise decisions, but not forced to give up their lands.
  A strong economy based on private enterprise and the spirit of individual initiative will encourage land conservation based on the rights and historically-proven competence of these property owners. Disregard for the freedom of choice of these owners is unfair. Wetlands regulation can get out of hand, taking from hard-working and trusting citizens even small pieces of land purchased years ago for retirement. Clever and aggressive government and non-government organizations have been known to twist the definitions of wetlands, confiscating property, interfering with legal development processes, and destroying trust and legitimate economic opportunity.

  Instead of bulldozing tactics which result in loss of income and trust, incentives could and should be provided. Income tax incentives, property tax relief, direct subsidies, incentives for developing non-wetland areas, and landowner education are some of these. In this way, landowners could make choices that generate economic gain AND preserve the land, because it will remain in the landowners' best interests to do so.

Perspective #3

  The experts in wetland restoration and creation admit that they are unable to completely restore or create the functions of natural wetlands. Therefore land managers should not depend on this option when developers want to destroy natural wetlands. We may never completely understand the magnitude of wetland functions so the only sure way to ensure that all of their valuable functions are maintain is to preserve them in their natural state. Therefore since we have already lost so many of our natural wetlands, we should strive to protect all remaining wetlands before it is too late.

  Supporters of this position believe the government should buy up existing wetlands, beginning with those of most critical importance. These wetlands should then be managed as wilderness areas, or "biosphere reserves", that would exclude development and harmful human impacts. Although not all wetlands can be protected in reserves, there are other options that could provide essential protection. These options include a matching funds systems to acquire and protect wetlands of local importance, a assemblage of nonprofit wetland preservation trusts that could acquire wetlands through donation, and a system providing incentives and regulation for wetlands on private lands. They believe the government should not permit any loss of wetland habitat and that it well within their jurisdiction to prevent and restrict development that would result in such losses.

  Most wetland policies overemphasize the importance of wetland use to benefit humans. Wetland mitigation, although beneficial towards a net gain in wetland habitat, promotes the notion that destroying wetlands is okay if you can make up for the loss with restoration or creation. Replacing our natural wetlands with inferior "artificial" wetlands will gradually decrease the overall functional value of wetlands to the environment. We need to preserve the few wetlands remaining in order to be able to carry out the vital research needed to be able to better restore or construct wetlands.



Biosphere reserves: "under this approach, a core area of wilderness is surrounded by a buffer zone in which only ecologically sensitive development is allowed."

Interesting local information:

Given the opportunity and an undisturbed area, marshes can be brought back. The next time you fly out of Logan Airport look out the window and see if you can spot the young marsh forming in the shallow bay near the airport.

This page was created by: Wendy Dalia, Leslie Driscoll, and Marsha Salett
Last update: 5/26/98
Please note this page is under construction.

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