By Peg Bostwick, ASWM
Here we are at the end of the year, so before we start the Christmas celebrations I’ll offer my (former high school teacher’s) highly unscientific wetland report card. Feel free to complain about the grades… it’s traditional!
We know (from USFWS status and trends reports and other sources) that we are continuing to lose wetland acreage in some geographic areas, and losing more of some ecological types than others. However, in some states and regions, losses are declining, or we are actually gaining. There is still great cause for concern, especially where wetlands will play a key role in climate change adaptation. As a nation, we’re trying hard, but can do better.
The “condition” or “health” or “importance” of U.S. wetlands is much harder to define – in part because there is no one single measure that captures all of the many ways in which wetlands can be good or important. (It’s like giving a child a single grade for their entire time in school, no comments allowed.) Nonetheless, we have advanced significantly in our ability to compare existing wetlands with the relatively undisturbed wetlands that existed at the time of European settlement of the continent, or to each other. And we know more about evaluating functions and services that are important to us and to the many species that rely on wetland habitat. It will take time to define trends in condition. While we have learned a lot more about assessing wetland condition, function, and importance, we are still struggling to find the terms to convey those measures to the public.
Ready or not, here it comes. Although there seemed to be less public denial than in past years, there does not seem to be much of a sense of public urgency, either. As pointed out in Naomi Klein’s book, This Changes Everything, if the nations of the world had taken serious steps to reduce emissions beginning in 1992 following the U.N. climate convention in Rio, we would have had to make cuts of 2% annually until 2005, and we might be in pretty good shape now. But instead emissions have mushroomed since then, and as a result we now have to push much harder to avoid a tipping point in global temperature. We need to THINK BIG and THINK FAST.
For those of us more focused on adaptation for the changes that are coming, and to an extent already upon us, we need to think BROADLY, COMPREHENSIVELY, and often WAY OUTSIDE THE BOX about the role of wetlands.
Darn, we work hard! Everywhere I look, I see wetland scientists and managers going above and beyond, out in the mud or bogged down in statistics and spreadsheets, looking for answers. And, importantly, finding them. This group has always been motivated, but we see an increase in teamwork and collaborative efforts.
However, wetland managers are frequently surrounded by ever-present, sometimes supportive and sometimes threatening stakeholders. Wetland staff are asked to be ever more efficient, but efficiency is defined as reduction in funding and/or increased workload to reducing the number of experts working on a task. As a result, wetland managers that we talk to around the country often exhibit a high level of anxiety, and sometimes burnout.
Based on an internet “pop quiz” the public probably has a pretty sound understanding of wetland importance. I tried a search for “why wetlands aren’t important.” My search engine assumed I meant “are” important, and gave me tons of results about the importance of wetlands. So I tried typing “what is bad about wetlands?” I got a couple of those Q & A responses, showing the best answers – which essentially said “there is nothing bad about wetlands.” (One said “wetlands sometime stink.”) I also asked why wetland regulation is bad. The answer defined as “best” said that wetland programs are bad when they don’t protect wetlands.
Although it apparently isn’t published much in internet sources, we are still very much aware of opposition to wetland protection – a viewpoint that will prevail if it is the only one heard in policy circles. We’re often called by individual members of the public who are shocked to find out wetlands aren’t fully protected. They thought they were. If that’s the case, it is important for them to communicate their concerns with their elected officials.
There you have it. Nothing that your parents need to sign, but hopefully for you to take your own big picture look at where we stand. Feedback is welcomed as always. We’ll see if things look better (or worse) next year….