Early in U.S. history, government agencies considered wetlands to be an impediment to development, and both state and federal governments actively supported conversion to farmland and managed timber, or for residential and urban development.  However, the loss of a high percentage of wetland resources – about 50% of wetlands in the continental U.S. since European settlement – eventually had adverse impacts on waterfowl and fish populations, and resulted in increased flooding and storm damage.   Private conservation organizations such as Ducks Unlimited were among the first groups to recognize the need to protect and restore wetlands.  During the early 1900s, both public and private preserves as well as wetland management projects were initiated.

By the time that the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, the federal government recognized the need for a national wetland permit program to work across state lines, protecting wetlands as a component of the nation’s water resources.  The federal authority for protection of wetlands is derived from Section 404 of the Clean Water Act (which regulates the discharge of fill to all waters of the United States, including wetlands), and Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899.   The Section 404 permit program is jointly administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  A number of state and local wetland permit programs actually pre-dated the Clean Water Act.

Various states and the Corps of Engineers soon found that some state and federal regulatory programs were duplicative, requiring both state and federal permits for the same activity.  The responsible agencies began to develop procedures to combine efforts; in 1977, Congress amended Section 404 to establish a formal process for administration of the 404 permit program by qualifying states.  While only two states (Michigan and New Jersey) have been formally approved to fully assume the 404 Program, a number of other states have partial responsibility for a coordinated state-federal permit program.   For links to regulatory documents, click here.

Wetland science has advanced greatly even since the 1970s.   In 2011, the first National Wetland Condition Assessment was conducted by the EPA, with direct participation of a number of states.  Many states, tribes and local agencies have also developed their own programs for the monitoring, assessment and stewardship of wetland resources.

Two books on the history of wetland management and regulation:

Discovering the Unknown Landscape: A History of America’s Wetlands

- Ann Vileisis, 1997, Island Press

Lawyers, Swamps, and Money:  U.S. Wetland Law, Policy, and Politics

- Royal C. Gardner, 2011, Island Press