Association of State Wetland Managers - Protecting the Nation's Wetlands.

For Peats Sake LogoBy Marla J. Stelk, Policy Analyst, ASWM

The Association of State Wetland Managers (ASWM) started looking at efforts to develop ecosystem service valuation tools in 2013 by hosting a webinar on Informing Flood Mitigation with Ecosystem Service Valuation: An Introduction to the Ecosystem Valuation Toolkit for the Natural Floodplain Functions Alliance. Then the Association looked in to this trending area of research and practice to find out how these methods might be applied in the context of wetland restoration and protection. After months of research, ASWM released a peer reviewed report on Ecosystem Service Valuation for Wetland Restoration: What It Is, How To Do It and Best Practice ecosystem070215Recommendations. We created a webpage about ecosystem services with links to other resources on our website. And we developed a webinar on our findings from the report that we presented as part of our Members Webinar Series as well as at our 2013 State/Tribal/ Federal Coordination Workshop, the 2014 Conference on Ecological & Ecosystem Restoration and the 2015 Society of Wetland Scientists annual conference.

It is a complicated field of study and practice – one that requires not only an understanding of science but economics as well. For many scientists and economists, it’s an uncomfortable relationship. It requires learning new ways of looking at the world and in many ways, learning a new language. Although both fields require the use of statistics and mathematics, one comes primarily from the human world perspective (economics is a social science) and the other comes primarily from the natural world perspective. Ironically, humans do come from and are intrinsically part of the natural world, however, in many ways we have lost our understanding of our connection to nature. This separation sets the stage for very divergent viewpoints on the role of nature and humanity. At the extreme, there are those who perceive humankind as wholly separate from nature and deny our dependence on the natural world. Conversely, there are those who think humankind is nothing but a virus to the natural world and that the earth would be far better off without them – or at least with a much smaller population. Both of these extreme perspectives, in my opinion, continue a negative feedback system in which we shortchange the needs of both humanity and the natural world.

eco070215I’ve had some exhilarating conversations with others who are also intrigued and excited by the potential of ecosystem service valuation as a communication tool that can illustrate how integrated the needs of society and the functions of nature really are in order to better inform policy and project selection. For better or worse, most of our nation’s activities are measured by economic output with the Gross Domestic Product. This indicator does not, however, account for the value of public goods such as clean air, clean water, storm surge protection, carbon sequestration and floodwater attenuation. Public goods are defined as being non-excludable (anyone can benefit from them) and non-rivalrous (the use by one individual does not reduce the availability of it for another). Public goods, such as ecosystem services, are not monetarily accounted for in our market system (essentially they are free) and so we have no incentive to protect the resources that provide them. Think of Garrett Hardin’s book the Tragedy of the Commons. Ecosystem service valuation is one way to begin accounting for services provided by our natural resources so we can start managing them more responsibly.

But when you start trying to identify all of the ecosystem services provided by natural resources, it can lead to a bit of a “rabbit hole.” The myriad of ecosystem services provided by resources such as wetlands can be exhaustive. And not all of them are easily transferable into monetary units – nor is it desirable at times to place a dollar value on things such as intrinsic value. And each wetland is unique due to various types of wetlands, diverse levels of ecosystem07215function and their placement on the landscape. So a “cookbook” approach certainly won’t work. As I mentioned at the beginning of this blog – it’s a very complicated field of study and practice and at times it makes my head hurt just trying to comprehend it all. So I can only imagine how overwhelming it must be for wetland program managers who have no economic background at all to understand how to utilize these tools. And there are a lot of them available which makes it even more overwhelming.

The good news is that ASWM has committed to hiring an intern for the summer to help us test a select list of available ecosystem service valuation tools, develop a synopsis of each, a comparative matrix and a final report to help wetland program managers figure out which tool(s) best fits their needs and capacity. We are excited to be working with Mark Healy, a student at Southern Illinois University, and his supervisor, Dr. Sylvia Secchi. We are also collaborating with the US EPA Office of Research and Development in Narragansett, Rhode Island, which is working on a similar effort for green infrastructure and a new conceptual mapping tool.

Our goal is to have our project completed by the end of 2015, but it’s certainly a field of study that can and will continue to develop for many years. If you have suggestions for the types of ecosystem services that are of particular interest for your wetland program, please let us know. And if anyone has useable data specific for their wetland/watershed that you would like to share with us for our testing purposes, please let us know about that as well. So for Peat’s Sake, stay tuned – we hope the final product will be used extensively by our members, states and tribes!

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View from the blog-o-sphereReflections on a field course

By R.K. Booth – Among the Stately Trees – June 19, 2015
The Pymatuning wetlanders demonstrated their knowledge of wetland ecosystems this morning on the final exam. The end of this course is always a bit bittersweet for me. Teaching a field course like this is intense, high-energy, all-consuming, and by the end…. exhausting.  However, without a doubt the experience has once again been the highlight of my professional activities for the year.  Each time I teach this class, I get to learn something new about wetland ecosystems and sharpen my natural history and plant identification skills.  I have the opportunity to get to know a bunch of  interesting students, much better than I would in a typical classroom setting. And it is extremely satisfying to share my knowledge and passion for natural ecosystems with a group of interested students. The Pymatuning Laboratory of Ecology is an ideal place to do this. For full blog post, click here.

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Wetlander's Pick of the Posts New study shows Arctic Ocean rapidly becoming more corrosive to marine species

Contact: Monica Allen – NOAA – June 15, 2015
New research by NOAA, University of Alaska, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in the journal Oceanography shows that surface waters of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas could reach levels of acidity that threaten the ability of animals to build and maintain their shells by 2030, with the Bering Sea reaching this level of acidity by 2044. For full story, click here.

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by Brenda Zollitsch

At the end of a long day of meetings a couple of weeks ago, I was lucky enough to get the chance to take an unexpected wetland wander in the Bangor Forest of Maine.  Although it was springtime in a soggy Maine wood, the bugs were nowhere to be found and the wanderer062615frogs were singing their hearts out.  I love that after living in Maine for so many years, I can still walk into the forest and be amazed by what I find.

It was so rejuvenating to breathe in the warm, sunlit air and to open my senses to the cascade of sound and color around me. I had the chance to examine a variety of plants that were luxuriating in the long-awaited good weather. I continue to be in awe of the rebound that the vast majority of the trees and other vegetation made after such a harsh winter.  Even though it was the coldest and snowiest winters in recent years, seemingly every branch had every leaf return.

66It wasn’t just the big stuff either.  Along the Deer Trail, lady slippers hung their beautiful pink heads.  Different species of ferns fawned over the trail, seemingly reaching out to touch me as I passed.  Fiddleheads promised more to come.  Moss wrapped itself around fallen tree trunks.  Even the skunk cabbage was especially exuberant, fully as stinky as its name implies.

Verioles were singing to each other among the branches, their green feathers occasionally visible among the greenery.  Yellow-winged birds hopped between unfurling ferns.  I too found myself unfurling.  Weeks later I still recognize how energizing and freeing that wonderful walk was.  It is easy to let life pull you away from the things that ground you – to get swept up in one’s work conducting analysis, planning meetings, examining a new rule, or editing documents.  All of that is essential to what most of us do.  We love wetlands and we work very hard to protect them with our work.  But perhaps 99because of all that we do for this work and with life that gets in the way, some of us let a little too much time pass us by before we visit an old wetland friend.

So today there is no analysis, no proposal, and no scientific or policy-related message in this blog post.  I simply wanted to remind you how good it is for every part of you, as a human being, to find your way into a wetland and wander…just for fun. 

For More Information:

Bangor City Forest Trail Map

Listen to a podcast on “Listening for Wildlife in the Bangor City Forest” by Ryan B. Robbins

Article on the health benefits of time spent out in nature

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Wetlander's Pick of the Posts Expedition Launched to Save Africa’s Largest Wetland

By Alexandra Fuller – National Geographic – May 27, 2015
A multinational team of, scientists, filmmakers, and journalists arrived in a remote corner of Angola last week to begin an unprecedented, 1,000-mile-long expedition supported by the National Geographic Society. For full story, click here.

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View from the blog-o-sphereThe California Spill and the Continuance of Harmful Oil Operations

By Brittany Michelson – Environmental News Network – June 2, 2015
Plains All American Pipeline, the company responsible for the May 19th Refugio oil spill rakes in billions of dollars (over 43 billion in 2014) while birds, fish, and marine mammals drenched in oil have washed up on the shores of Santa Barbara County. In the initial few days investigators reported that 9.5 miles of ocean and 8.7 miles of coastline had been affected, but oil shifts with trade winds, and signs of oil damage have shown up further south, in the Malibu region. For full blog post, click here.

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By Jeanne Christie

Since the SWANCC Supreme Court  Decision in 2001, a great deal of the Association of State Wetland Manager’s  expertise has been directed to helping states and others understand changes to Clean Water Act jurisdiction and the program and policy implications of those changes.  After SWANCC, there was Carabell/Rapanos followed by proposed legislation, followed by proposed guidance and most recently the proposed and now final Clean Water Rule.

epa061915The protection provided to wetlands by the Clean Water Act was diminished significantly by the SWANCC Supreme Court decision in 2001.  Millions of acres of wetlands were no longer subject to jurisdiction and with it the requirement to get a permit to dredge and fill a wetland.  The Carabell/Rapanos Supreme Court decision further weakened wetland protection. The Clean Water Rule would return Clean Water Act jurisdiction to a portion of the wetlands that were under Clean Water Act jurisdiction prior to SWANCC, but not to many of them. This is disappointing given that the role of wetlands in protecting water quality, supporting biodiversity, attenuating floods, etc. is well documented.  The consequences of losing wetlands on the landscape translate into a variety of problems and increased risks for people, plants and wildlife.   However, the content of the new Clean Water Rule is not unexpected given the constraints on federal protection that resulted from the Supreme Court decisions.

Protection of wetlands under federal and state law is very important.  ASWM will continue to be very engaged in this area of public policy.  Ultimately however, federal and state regulations only slow destruction of wetland resources, they do not stop it.  Many activities such as wetland drainage are not subject to the Clean Water Act or state regulatory programs.  In addition; even when a permit is required, only a handful of dredge and fill permits are denied.  The bottom line is that as long as people believe that they will benefit more from destroying a wetland than keeping it, wetland losses are likely to continue.

So while many interest groups are focused on the debate over the merits of the new Clean Water Rule and whether the agencies will implement it or Congress will stop it: there are some very interesting events occurring in other areas of public policy.   Over time these may translate into a different public and private landowner ethic about the importance of wetlands and provide greater support for protecting these resources.

For example there is increasing recognition worldwide that wetlands can play a critical role in reducing threats to human health and safety from extreme weather events  See: Disaster Risk Reduction, Wetlands Do Triple Duty in a Changing Climate  and Downstream Voices: Wetland Solutions to Reducing Disaster Risk

On a more local level, researchers in the Danube River watershed In Europe, found that wetland and floodplain loss has led to an increase in extreme weather events such as drought and flooding and efforts are underway to reverse those trends by restoring and protecting wetlands and floodplains.

In the United States an increasing number of studies quantify the ability of wetlands, natural and manmade, to reduce pollution from agriculture.

Manmade wetlands can help reduce agricultural fertilizer pollution by up to 50%

Controlled drainage and wetlands to reduce agricultural pollution: a lysimetric study

Ability of Restored  Wetlands to Reduce Nitrogen and Phosphorus Concentrations in Agricultural Drainage Water

This kind of research and problem solving is critical since, according to the 2004 National Water quality Inventory: Report to Congress, agriculture is one of the leading sources of impairment to streams in the United States.

figure3epa061915And increasingly there are a variety of tools, publications and models available that describe specific practices to manage and conserve wetlands to deliver the services wetlands are known to provide.  Just this week a new report: Living Shorelines, from Barriers to Opportunities was published which includes a suite of techniques that offer property owners the opportunity to protect and restore their shoreline using more naturally-occurring systems like salt marsh and oyster reefs while also providing benefits to bays and estuaries.

There are many, many more publications like this available.

And finally, there are new and unexpected parties that may have an influential role in shaping the public’s perception about the importance of the natural environment, including wetlands.

Release of encyclical reveals pope’s deep dive into climate science

To read the full encyclical text, go here.

As recognition of wetlands restoration, protection and management as a practical tool for addressing a variety of threats to human population increases, then voluntary actions undertaken by people to protect and conserve and restore wetlands are likely to increase as well.  However, the more wetlands that are destroyed in the interim, the more efforts to protect human lives and property will cost.  So both are needed: federal and state regulatory programs that require permits to alter wetlands and the application of new practices to protect, conserve and restore wetlands to protect people, the economy and the environment.

wetlands619154The alternative is more stories like these

Tides Turn U.S. Yards to Wetlands as Warming Takes Toll

Disappearing Groundwater: An Unrealized Threat to Our Future 

Ocean ‘dead zones’ a growing disaster for fish 

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View from the blog-o-sphereExploring a missed opportunity: Microclimates

By Frank van Steenbergen and Abraham Mehari Haile – CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems – June 3, 2015
They go largely unobserved and unattended. In view of the climate change that is with us today, this is a huge missed opportunity: microclimates. As long ago as 1949, Wolfe, Wareham and Scofield, in a meticulous description of the microclimate in the small Neotoma valley in Central Ohio, observed there is much attention for predictions and trends of macroclimate, but far less understanding of how this translates in weather at a local level. The same holds true today. Climate science has a large interest in ‘average weather’. For full blog post, click here.

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Wetlander's Pick of the Posts What’s driving rapid recovery of American waterways?

By Patrick Jonsson – The Christian Science Monitor – June 3, 2015
There is little doubt that the Environmental Protection Agency and the 1972 Clean Water Act are keystones to dramatic improvements in US water quality, the industrial degradation of which was highlighted by fuel distillates burning on the Cuyahoga River in Ohio, in 1969. For full story, click here.

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For Peats Sake LogoBy Marla J. Stelk, Policy Analyst, ASWM

Last week I had the honor and privilege of representing the Association of State Wetland Managers (ASWM) at the Society of Wetland Scientists (SWS) annual conference in Providence, Rhode Island. The theme of this year’s conference was “Changing Climate, Changing Wetlands.” Since climate change is a topic I’ve been sws61115following for more than twenty years, I was eager to attend and learn as much as I can from the multitude of extremely smart people at the conference. And I was not disappointed. The bad news is that we are not well-positioned to understand all the potential impacts because of a lack of long-range studies. In other words, we’re exploring new territory and so we’re going to have a steep learning curve – there will be some impacts that are simply unavoidable. The good news is there are a lot of people much smarter than myself who are diligently studying how climate change is currently impacting wetlands, what future impacts may be, what those impacts mean to humans, wildlife and plants,  and what we can do to mitigate and adapt to those impacts. So we’ve got a really great team working on it.

Here are some interesting tidbits I picked up while attending various sessions:

  1. carbon2611151 in 10 Americans do not know that 97% of scientists are in consensus that climate change is real and is happening.  The best way to educate people about the reality of climate change is through face-to-face conversations among friends and family. The four primary focus frames for communicating about climate change are: risk management, clean energy (e.g., business opportunities), human health, and national defense.
  2. Some scientists are breaking from taxonomic models and are focusing instead on restoring “native functions”. “Riparian Response Guilds” indicate what kind of system you’re working in and allow you to model what trade-offs happen to plant guilds when water budgets change.
  3. Native plant seedbanks are a good rationale for allowing sediment to stay on-site during restoration, assuming there are no bad contaminant issues.
  4. The carbon market is anticipated to grow by 300% by 2020. The main reason for companies and agencies to buy carbon credits is to reach climate reduction goals.
  5. Becoming a certified Professional Wetland Scientist is a good and smart thing to do. You can find out more at
  6. We need to develop a conservation model that helps us preserve what we can because we won’t be able to preserve it all.
  7. Connectivity is super important but complicated.
  8. Plants are going to have a very difficult time adapting to climate change because they move very slowly (think about the Ents in The Hobbit).  But we can remediate some tree stress through short duration fresh water remediation. We can also explore assisted migration by starting to plant southern trees more northward. Pre-settlement conditions as a land management and restoration target are unsustainable because of climate change.
  9. In regard to restoration of agricultural lands in parts of the mid-Atlantic, soil removal results in a loss of carbon capture in restoration sites – it is better to plug, berm, etc. Soil organic carbon in these types of sites recovers very slowly in restored wetlands compared to natural wetlands. If you have a thicker surficial aquifer and thick soils, groundwater will avoid nutrients. A compacted soil layer limits the amount of groundwater that can run through and denitrify a site. If top soil is removed during restoration, phosphorous is less likely to be sent to a river, but removal of top soil is not good for carbon sequestration. These results may vary depending on what type of wetland you are restoring, its history, and its location on the landscape.
  10. 29 species of Prairie Pothole Region birds are experiencing an average 32.5% decline in range. The Wilson Snipe is faced with a 90% reduction. Species extinction and loss of biodiversity is a serious threat from climate change.
  11. Climate change is creating fewer groundwater connections and less storage capacity for Prairie Pothole wetlands resulting in greater surface flow. We need a better understanding of the role of water budgets on the landscape.
  12. wetland261115All wetlands eventually have a net cooling effect unless they are disturbed. High salinity estuarine wetlands emit very little methane. Carbon oxidation can be used to offset methane emissions through rewetting.
  13. Cranberry production is moving to the Midwest (from the Northeast) leaving many sites available for restoration.
  14. Ecosystem service valuation is a good communication tool and is generating a lot of interest and support. There are efforts going on to develop defensible ecological indicators to use in ecosystem service valuation. It is equally important, however, to develop approaches that allow for comparisons of benefits in an economically sound way without monetary values.
  15. We need to incorporate carbon services into existing federal legislation which should lead to more habitat conservation and climate mitigation – but to do so we need a better understanding of carbon systems.
  16. Hybrid infrastructure (green + gray) is a promising strategy to address rising sea levels on the coast but we need more information on the storm protection value of natural infrastructure.
  17. Vernal pools and frog populations can be restored along linear projects in Maine (e.g. power lines) and attain performance goals.
  18. It is important to have an independent designated specialist during restoration construction. It is also important to: educate the client during scoping; be part of the construction process; have a specialist on site – saves a lot of money compared to having a construction crew redo the site after making serious mistakes; start early with communication about design and construction techniques – during the pre-construction meeting; and having a good contractor is worth every penny.
  19. usgs2There are always trade-offs among ecosystem services when doing wetland restoration, e.g. biodiversity and nutrient processing.  Managers should try to exploit synergies to gain multiple objectives. Not all objectives can be maximized which underscores the need for a watershed approach.
  20. The carbon cycle in relation to wetlands is extremely complex and needs much more research.

So For Peats’ Sake, although we are in unchartered territory and we cannot perfectly predict the future, there are a lot of ways in which we can mitigate and adapt to the negative impacts of climate change.  We must continue to protect and restore wetlands, perform research, communicate effectively to all of our stakeholders and the general public, collaborate through strategic, interdisciplinary partnerships, and encourage the development of the political will to do what needs to be done for adaptation and mitigation.

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