Who comes first, the plants or the people?

Who comes first, the plants or the people?

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Who comes first, the plants or the people?

What does come first? Should people be asked to give up something or be denied something? Or should people be allowed to develop where they please?

Often when people take on an endeavor their first thoughts are about how they can benefit right now, especially in terms of money, and they are not focused on the long-term effects of what they are doing. Although this is not the case in every situation, the incidences in which it is can have a negative impact on the environment, in particular, damage the wetlands.

According the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) there was estimated to be over 220 million acres of wetlands in the lower 48 states during the 1600s and in 1997 there were only 105.5 million acres of wetlands remaining (2003). From 1986 to 1997 58,500 acres of wetland were lost each year (EPA 2003). The study during 1986 to 1997 also showed the causes of wetland losses in the United States were due to urban development (30%), agriculture (26%), silviculture (23%), and rural development (21%) (US Fish & Wildlife 2003).

Wetlands are found throughout the United States and there are many different types of wetlands and these environmental structures provide a number of valuable functions in the communities in which they reside. There are some protection measures present for these wonderments and measures to help the communities protect them. However, there are still those that question the value of them. The numerous valuable functions of the varying types of wetlands throughout the United States is one group of “plants” that should be preserved and come before “people.”

What are wetlands?

In the United States there is a wide variety of wetlands due to the varying climates, land structure, species occupying the terrain, and other factors, such as human disturbance. The EPA defines wetlands as an area of land that is saturated with water, on or near the surface, and the water amount determines the plants and animals that are found in that community (2003). The Clean Water Act also provides a definition of wetlands as “those areas that are inundated or saturated by surface or ground water at a frequency and duration sufficient to support … a prevalence of vegetation typically adapted for life in saturated soil conditions” (EPA 2003). From these definitions wetlands can be grouped into four basic types: marshes, swamps, bogs, and fens.

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The first type of wetlands is marshes, which are lands that are frequently or always flooded with water. Marshes receive most of their moisture from surface water and some from ground water. This type of wetland is also nutrient rich and has a unique pH to support a wide range of plant and animal life. The two general types of marches are nontidal and tidal marshes. The nontidal marshes are widely distributed throughout the United States and are made of mostly fresh water. Some examples of nontidal marshes are prairie potholes, playa lakes, vernal pools, and wet meadows. The tidal marshes are located along the coastlines from Maine to Florida and Louisiana to Texas. These marshes are influenced by ocean tides and can vary in salinity of the water.

The next wetland type created is swamps. Swamps are dominated by woody plants and have highly organic soils. The two major classes are forested swamps and shrub swamps. These forms of wetlands are often found adjacent to one another and are receive much of their moisture from the nearby rivers or streams that flood. The major difference between the forested and shrub swamps is the type of vegetation occupying them. Some examples of swamps are bottomland hardwoods and mangrove swamps.

Bogs are the next type of wetlands. They receive most of their moisture from precipitation, which is ideal for the growth of moss. This atmosphere creates acidic waters and spongy peat deposits. Bogs are found in the glaciated Northeast, Great Lakes region, and the Southeast. They are formed by moss growing over a pond or lake and filling it or moss covering dry land, which prevents water from leaving the surface. The formation of bogs can take hundreds to thousands of years to form. Some examples are the northern bogs and the pocosins.

The final type of wetland is fens, which receive their nutrients and water from ground water. Fens are less acidic and have high nutrient levels than bogs, which allow them to support a more varied amount of plants and animals (EPA 2003). They are found in the Northeast U.S., Great Lakes region, and in the Rocky Mountains. This type of wetland is often covered with wildflowers and grasses.

What are the functions of wetlands?

Wetlands provide a number of useful functions in society. The communities benefit from species habitats, water filtration, atmospheric protection, water cycling, flood protection, shoreline erosion protection, recreation, education, and research.

The wetlands provide a wide variety of habitats for many different plants and animals. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services there are 989 endangered and 276 threatened species for a total of 1,262 endangered or threatened species in the United States (2003). Of these endangered and threatened species at least one-third of them live only in wetlands and almost half use the wetlands at some point during their life (EPA 2003). In addition to these species the wetlands is also the breeding ground of many commercial and game fish. The wetlands also provide a nesting or feeding ground many of the North American bird species.

Wetlands also offer the important ability to filter water. The microorganisms in wetlands use the extra nutrients or pollutants for their development and growth, which in turn acts as a filtering process. Marshes and swamps are most well known for providing this function and have even been built next to some farms, parking lots, and small sewage plants to filter out pollutants that might otherwise enter the waterways. In South Carolina a bottomland hardwood swamp was built to filter water and it saved the community $5 million that they would have had to spend on a waste water treatment plant (EPA 2003).

It has also been found that wetlands can help to improve our atmosphere conditions. Scientists have realized that wetlands can store carbon within the plant communities and soil, which prevents it from being release into the atmosphere to form carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases (EPA 2003). This could help to moderate the climate conditions throughout the world.

In addition to these benefits the wetlands can enhance the water cycling in communities. Wetlands can help to continue a stream flow during drought periods and can even replenish some groundwater supplies during these times. This benefit of wetlands can help to lessen the impact that drought seasons may have on society.

Another important benefit of wetlands is the ability to protect surrounding areas from floods. All wetlands, some better than others, offer the ability to store surface water and release it slower then if the wetland was not there. The EPA estimates an acre of wetlands can store 1-1.5 million gallons of floodwater (2003). The vegetation also acts like a roadblock to slow the floodwaters. Since wetlands have the ability to help control floods it can reduce the damage caused by floods to homes, business, and agricultural land. In the 1993 floods along the Mississippi River Basin there were billions of dollars of damage that may have been reduced if the 20 million acres of wetlands in this area had not been drained (EPA 2003). According the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) floods cause about 200 deaths every year and by helping to reduce flooding the wetlands can also help to save lives of those individuals that are lost to floods (2003).

The wetlands that occur along the coasts can help to prevent shoreline erosion. The vegetation of the wetlands helps to hold the soil in place with their roots and can absorb some of the force of the waves. The tidal marshes along the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico are prime examples of this function of wetlands. These wetlands can also absorb extra nutrients in the rivers and streams before they reach the ocean.

One more benefit of the wetlands is their recreation, education, and research possibilities. Many wetland areas are used for hunting, fishing, or bird watching. Also recreational activities such as hiking or boating are done in wetland areas. In 1991 the wetland related tourism activities contributed $59 billion to the national economy (EPA 2003). There are also several educational and research possibilities on wetlands like plant-animal interactions and biodiversity studies.

All of these functions of wetlands are important to human society in one way or another.

How can the wetlands be protected?

The EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers are the agencies responsible for enforcing the protection of the wetlands. Currently they use the approach that the nations’ wetlands as watersheds to help protect them. A watershed is the area in which all water, nutrients, and other dissolved materials flow from the land into a common body of water (EPA 2003). Thus the watershed also examines the wetlands in the system. The water quality standards, which are examined in a watershed, allow for a legal basis in order to protect wetland resources through state programs. The Clean Water Act also helps to protect the wetlands because it requires a permit to alter the wetlands in any way. To help the land owners in developing where they might cause damage to wetlands a wetlands mitigation banking is set up, which allows developers to buy credits from the bank that go to future wetland developments.

Wetlands can also be restored if they are damaged and when restoring a wetland there are several principals that should be followed. First the potential of the watershed should be examined and a comparison wetland should be used. Then the wetland should be restored to its natural condition as best as possible. Throughout the restoration process future problems in the wetland should also be considered when developing the site. A restored wetland can be beneficial to the surrounding watershed and community.

On an individual basis there are several things that can be done to help preserve the wetlands. The proceeds of duck stamps ($15) go to support the wetland acquisition and restoration and can be an easy way to contribute to the wetlands. Individuals can also volunteer in monitoring programs to make sure wetlands are not destroyed. If landscaping, buffer strips can be added along wetlands of a property to protect the water quality. Also a wetland can even be built in one’s backyard.

What are some issues surrounding wetlands?

According to the Housing Assistance Council the protection of wetlands is one of the environmental causes that affects the development of rural housing (1995). Often the costs to develop in areas that may cause wetland damage can be overwhelming, but there are several programs to help with the cost, such as the wetlands mitigation banking. Also when developers are looking to develop on or near wetlands there may be other land sites available that they can build on that will not impact the wetlands as much. In addition, the presence of the wetlands can help to prevent flooding, purify water, and provide recreation spots for the new community, which will save that homeowners or business money in the long run. There are several developmental projects that can benefit both the housing developers and the environment such as the development in Woodinville, which is providing low income housing and building new wetlands (King County 2001).

Another area of protecting wetlands that is often challenged is the developments involving individual Americans. Many of these issues arise when private property owners wish to further develop their land. One such case is 272 acres of land bought by a man in New York, which he hoped to develop some of it as housing, however the land was near and on wetlands so he was unable to develop the land (EcoWorld 2000). In cases were individuals wished to develop wetlands there is the possibility of the “taking” the land. Taking of private property by the government is allowed if the land is compensated for, usually in a money settlement (EPA 2003). There are also many funding options for private owners who are on a limited budget when building near wetlands.

It is especially important to try to preserve the wetlands now because President Bush wants to issue new authority on the nation’s wetlands. The Bush administration’s plans will remove federal protection from 20 percent of the nations wetlands, which is about 20 million acres (NRDC 2003). If this is implemented then it will be more important than ever to take responsibility on individual responsibility to preserve the wetlands that remain.

In conclusion, there are many different types of wetlands in the United States, which are disappearing faster then they should. These valuable resources provide a number of important functions for the surrounding communities, one of which could save lives (flood prevention).

So now what does come first, plants or people? Should people be asked to give up something or be denied something? Or should people be allowed to develop where they please? These questions were asked before and now it should be more apparent the when regarding wetlands, the “plants” should come before the “people.”


EcoWorld. 2003. Online. Accessed: Feb. 16, 2003. Avaliable:

EPA. 2003. Online. Accessed: Feb. 15, 2003. Avaliable: www.epa.gov

Housing Assistance Council. 1995. Online. Accessed: Feb. 16, 2003. Avaliable:

King County. 2001. Online. Accessed: Feb. 16, 2003. Avaliable:

NRDC. 2003. Online. Accessed: Feb. 15, 2003. Avaliable: www.nrdc.org/default.asp

US Fish & Wildlife. 2003. Online. Accessed: Feb. 15, 2003. Avaliable:
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