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The Compleat Wetlander: The End of an Era: Wetland Mapping Office Closes its Doors

In August the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) quietly closed down the St. Petersburg office that was the home of the National Wetland Inventory (NWI) for 32 years.

It is hard nowadays to appreciate that the NWI and associated FWS status and trends reports revolutionized wetlands policy in the United States.  Author Ann Vileisis describes the early years of NWI in her book Discovering the Unknown Landscape; A History of America’s Wetlands pointing out “the new National Wetlands Inventory created a sense of urgency regarding the loss of wetlands.”  The release of the first status and trends report in 1982 documented that the nation had lost 458,000 a year from the mid ‘50s to the mid ‘70s.

The first status and trends report would influence state and federal law for the next two decades reinforcing the need for changes to the Clean Water Act, for eliminating numerous federal incentives to destroy and alter wetlands, and for creating new wetland restoration and conservation initiatives such as the Farm Bill’s Wetland Reserve Program.  The Wetland Reserve Program is the nation’s largest wetland restoration program and has led to the successful restoration of two million acres of wetlands–a small but very significant reversal of the estimated 100 million lost since European settlement–mostly through conversions to agriculture.  This is only a piece of the nation’s overall commitment to wetlands.  According to a recent report by the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) from 2005-2009 the federal government invested $3.9 billion in protecting, restoring, creating and managing wetlands

In 1976 developing a system for mapping wetlands required the development of new science and technology.  The Cowardin classification system was created specifically for NWI
.  In addition a method was needed for drawing boundaries on a map.   Not all experiments worked.  The initial attempt to convert the latest military technology to a digital analytical stereo plotter was eventually discarded in favor of classic cartographic techniques.  For the first time, wetlands were delineated on a map

In the 1980s and early ‘90s the St. Petersburg office churned out maps.  Staffing grew from one to 18 FWS staff plus 150 contractors all engaged in creating wetland maps for the nation.  However, in 1996 a 50% budget cut signaled the end of the ambitious national program.  That 4.5 million had been used to leverage at least 100% matching funds from states and local government to support the wetland mapping program.  Although, the federal staff remained available to continue projects, the loss of cost share dramatically downsized the program.

Over the years federal resources to support wetland mapping continued to decline until 2009 only four FWS employees were left at the St. Petersburg office.  This summer the office closed for good and the staff were transferred to other locations, primarily Madison, Wisconsin.  The program now supports mapping for 1-2% of the nation each year requiring 50-100 years to complete and update wetland maps for the county.

How much difference would the restoration of 4.5 million in cost share make?  There are a lot of variables, but, with improvements in software technology and remote sensing, it would likely enable FWS to support mapping 10% of the country each year.  This would make it possible to complete and update a wetland map for the nation once every 10 years.   Accurate information about the location of wetlands as well as small streams, rivers, lakes and coastlines is essential to managing water resources for climate change, for floods and hurricanes, for clean water and for wildlife.  Cumulatively, it is probable that not knowing where wetlands are–including where they have been lost or added to the landscape–will cost a lot more than 4.5 million each year, probably 10s or even 100s of millions of dollars more for the federal, state and local government as well as landowners, taxpayers, and members the business community.

National Wetlands Inventory Website:
FWS Status and Trends Reports:
National Wetlands Inventory: A Strategy for the 21st Century Strategy: (see page 7 for a summary of age of map imagery overlaid with likelihood of development risk.  Note:  a couple states have more recent maps than indicated on the graphic.)

Use Google Earth to View NWI Wetlands Data:

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One Response to The Compleat Wetlander: The End of an Era: Wetland Mapping Office Closes its Doors

  1. Liz Pelloso says:

    I had no idea…thanks for sharing this, Jeanne.

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