Wetlands gains are questioned by groups

By Tim Spielman Associate Editor

Washington — On the surface, at least, it appears a triumph for
conservation – a gain of nearly 200,000 acres of wetlands in six
years.

It’s the first time in 50 years the U.S. Department of the
Interior has reported such gains.

But are the wetlands being created a good replacement for those
lost?

That’s what groups like Ducks Unlimited and the Theodore
Roosevelt Conservation Partnership are wondering.

The report, released in late March by the Interior’s Fish and
Wildlife Service, shows the first net gain in wetlands acreage
since reporting began in 1954. At a press conference in Washington,
the secretaries of the departments of the Interior and Agriculture
announced that about 191,800 acres of wetlands were gained between
1998 and 2004, bringing the nation’s total wetlands acreage to
107.7 million acres, or about 5 percent of the land area of the
Lower 48 states, a USDA news release states.

The “Status and Trends of Wetlands in the Conterminous United
States” acknowledges that wetlands created to replace those lost –
part of a no-net-loss effort – may not be of comparable quality,
something groups monitoring wetlands point out.

According to the TRCP: “The wetlands inventory update report …
showing national gains in wetlands does not take into account
important differences in the quality of wetlands. That is not the
intent or mandate of the regularly compiled report – it does not
assess the quality or condition of the nation’s wetlands.

“But on a day when we are examining progress in our national
wetlands conservation efforts, it is important to note that we are
still losing the high-quality, naturally occurring wetlands so
vital to our American natural resource chain.”

The report, according to the USFWS, “details a smaller loss of
natural vegetated wetlands than in previous periods and substantial
acreage gains in wetlands that include man-made ponds such as water
traps on golf courses, recreational or decorative ponds in
residential areas, and storm water retention ponds.”

While these wetlands may fill some needs, they’re not the real
thing, says the TRCP.

“The artificial water bodies this report counts … do not provide
the same habitat, water cleansing or flood-control values as do the
natural wetlands it counts,” a TRCP press statement says.

Adds DU’s Scott Sutherland, chair of the TRCP’s Wetlands
Conservation Working Group: “If you look at our national wetlands
inventory based on the natural wetlands that provide the best
habitat, water filtration, and flood control, it is clear that we
are continuing to lose these precious assets.”

Federal agencies say the report was conducted as it has been for
50 years, not measuring “qualitative changes.” However, the USDA’s
press release states, “Because the president’s (Bush) wetlands
policy aims to improve the quality as well as quantity of wetlands,
the agencies that are participating in the president’s Wetlands
Initiative will continue working and will identify how best to
track and report more detailed information on wetland function,
quality, and condition.”

Robert Zbiciak, the wetlands restoration and watershed
coordinator with the Land and Water Management Division of the
Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, also questions the
reported gains.

“My understanding is that they cite the increase and include
open-water, pond-type increases. Storm water retention ponds are
being counted,” Zbiciak said. “You see a tremendous increase in
those types of systems, but technically, that’s not a traditional
wetland as we see them. It’s kind of misleading.”

Loss of wetlands is a big issue in Michigan. Historical data
indicate that Michigan had about 11 million acres of wetlands in
pre-settlement days. The most recent survey of Michigan’s wetlands
was conducted by the USFWS in 1982 and showed that just 3.2 million
acres remain.

“That’s about a 70-percent loss in coastal wetlands and a
50-percent loss in inland wetlands,” said Michigan DNR wetlands
specialist Faye McNew. “It’s important for us to protect what we
have left and to replace those that we have lost.”

The Michigan Wetlands Conservation Strategy, which was enacted
in October of 1997, sets goals for Michigan’s wetlands restoration.
The short-term goal is to restore 50,000 acres, or about 1 percent
of the historical losses, by 2010. The long-term goal is to restore
500,000 acres of wetlands, or about 10 percent of the historical
loss. No timetable has been set for that goal. Zbiciak says the
short-term goal is achievable and that at the present time wetlands
are being restored in Michigan at a rate of about 3,800 to 4,000
acres a year.

“I still have a hard time believing that we are at no net loss,”
Zbiciak said. “I feel we are still losing wetlands.

“But there are a lot of good things happening with wetlands in
the state. A lot of wetland restoration programs are pumping money
into Michigan.”

According to the USFWS, past periodic surveys all have shown
wetlands losses. For example, data from the mid-1950s to the
mid-1970s show a loss of nearly 500,000 acres of wetlands each
year.

“The rate of loss was substantially reduced to about 59,000
acres annually by 1997, and then eliminated by the first net gain
in acreage by 2004 in the new report,” a news release states.

The wetland gain from 1998 to 2004 was an estimated 32,000 acres
each year.

“Freshwater wetland losses that occurred primarily as a result
of urban and rural development offset some gains,” according to the
USFWS.

“Urban and rural development combined accounted for an estimated
61 percent of the net freshwater wetland losses between 1998 and
2004.”

Meanwhile, conservation groups continue to monitor the U.S.
Supreme Court, which is expected to soon issue a ruling on a case
that could affect the protection of thousands of acres of wetlands
in the United States. The “Rapanos” and “Carabell” cases have
implications far beyond their Michigan borders.

The Supreme Court in those cases must decide what constitutes
protected wetlands under the federal Clean Water Act.

— Editor Bill Parker
contributed to this report

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