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Overview - Wetlands

America's wetlands encompass rich and diverse ecosystems that are crucial to America's national environmental heritage. Few areas are as critical to wildlife, the overall health of ecosystems, and even water table stability. Wetlands provide much needed resting and feeding areas on the migratory routes of all North American waterfowl. Without them, these populations are unable to complete their migrations and will not survive. They provide habitat where juvenile salmon find food and shelter from predators, water table stabilization and natural flood control, and support for entire regional food chains.

They are also widely misunderstood and unappreciated. America's wetlands are disappearing at a rate that has led to federal and state regulations, policies, and directives aimed at maintaining them. One such program allows developers to build on wetlands in exchange for restoring or creating others nearby for instance. Recognizing the importance of wetland protection, in 1998 the Bush administration endorsed the goal of “no net loss” of wetlands. Specifically, it directed that filling of wetlands should be avoided, and minimized when it cannot be avoided. When filling is permitted, compensatory mitigation must be undertaken; that is, wetlands must be restored, created, enhanced, and in some cases, preserved, to replace the permitted loss of wetland area and function, such as water quality improvement within the watershed.

After more than a dozen years the national commitment to “no net loss” of wetlands were evaluated by a special committee formed by the National Research Council arm of the National Academy of Sciences. That report is linked on this page. The NRC explored the adequacy of science and technology for replacing wetland function and the effectiveness of the federal program of compensatory mitigation in accomplishing the nation’s goal of clean water. They also examined the regulatory framework for permitting wetland filling and requiring mitigation, compares the mitigation institutions that are in use, and addresses the problems that agencies face in ensuring sustainability of mitigated wetlands over the long term. They concluded that although the loss of total wetland area has slowed in the past two decades, the rate of loss is still significant and does not acceptably meet the No Net Loss requirement and that mitigation and replacement programs should be improved.

Sadly, this is to be expected. To many, wetlands are nothing more than fowl smelling "swamps" standing in the way of parking lots, shopping malls or tract homes. Unless more is done to protect them and educate the public about their value, the losses we will suffer will be far reaching.


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