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

The Compleat Wetlander: Status and Trends: No Net Loss of Wetlands Proves Elusive

On Earth Day 2004 President Bush announced that wetland gains achieved through restoration and creation had surpassed wetland losses achieving no net loss of wetlands for the first time.  The  U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) Status and Trends report concluded that overall wetlands acreage had increased 32,000 acres a year from 1998 to 2004.  Looking ahead, the President set an ambitious goal to restore, improve and protect an additional 3 million acres over the next five years.

Fast forward ahead to October 6, 2011 when the  USFWS Status and Trends report for 2004-2009 was released.  This report concluded that the number of wetland acres in the coterminous U.S. had declined slightly over the five year period—an overall net loss of 62,300 acres.  It would be a gross simplification to conclude that the nation had failed to achieve the goals established by President Bush in 2004.  Wetland gains and losses are complex and multifaceted.  But the 2011 report does raise questions about whether the country will be able to continue to realize its no net loss goal, particularly in the face of the challenges ahead.

To understand where we are today, it’s important to know where we’ve been.   In the first Status and Trends report covering the period from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s, the nation was losing 500,000 acres a year.   Subsequent reports reflected reductions in annual losses up to the achievement of no net loss in 2004.  This turnaround was the result of economics (how profitable it was to convert wetlands), changing government policies and greater public recognition of the significance of wetland resources. These in turn lead to wetland destruction, restoration and creation on thousands of acres across the country every year.  The Status and Trends report is the aggregation of all those individual changes to the national level and rates of relative gains and losses as they change over time. In the period from 2004 to 2009 the rate of reestablishment of wetlands increased 17 percent from the previous period.  However this was not enough to offset a larger increase of 140% in the rate of loss.

The Status and Trends report is a statistical analysis. http://www.fws.gov/wetlands/
StatusAndTrends2009/Science.html
It does not represent a remapping of all wetlands in the U.S. Instead a series of plots of land distributed across the lower 48 states have been sampled and re-sampled over time.  Taken together these plots provide information on national trends.  However, they are designed to reflect national trends, and are not  statistically reliable for a smaller area such as a single state.  Therefore in a given state or area of the country the overall mix of wetland gains and losses might be very different.

What the report does do is indicate that some areas of concern that merit further attention.

Of particular concern are coastal wetlands.  Intertidal emergent wetlands are being lost largely to open water.  This supports concerns that sea level rise, coastal storms, and human activities are accelerating erosion and loss of coastal wetlands.

Forested wetlands were lost at an accelerated rate as well, mostly converted to upland by forestry (largely exempt from regulation) and urban and rural development.  This highlights that wetland losses are continuing to occur to important freshwater wetlands sometimes through activities exempt from regulation.

Freshwater ponds continued to be a significant source of wetland gain.  While the Status and Trends report does not address wetland quality, this trend highlights existing concerns that the national emphasis on mitigating wetland losses rather than denying  permit applications to destroy wetlands may not provide the full range of ecological services lost when wetlands are destroyed in one location and restored or created somewhere else.

However, the Status and Trends is a snapshot in time and additional information is needed about what is happening to wetland resources in order to provide more detailed information about the reasons for wetland loss and develop appropriate policies and programs.  This is needed because there are changes and new challenges ahead.

For example, the Conservation Title of the Farm Bill and in particular the Wetlands Reserve Program has enrolled an estimated 2.3 million acres since 1990.  In these financially troubled times the future of WRP in the 2012 Farm Bill is uncertain.  In addition the Swampbuster program has served as a deterrent to wetlands loss through farming activities which are largely exempt from the Clean Water Act Section 404 program.  Its ongoing relevance is also a potential source of concern.  Changes in the 2012 farm bill could reduce wetland acres gained and increase the wetland acres lost.

Sea level rise and loss of coastal wetlands is expected to continue to be an issue of concern.

In response to the desire to create jobs and undertake other actions to stimulate the economy, there has been legislation introduced at the state and federal level to weaken existing wetland protections.

Wetland losses are about more than wetlands acres.  Wetlands provide flood storage, hurricane protection, habitat for wildlife including fisheries, water supply, recreation and clean water.  If wetlands are lost then the services provided by wetlands are lost as well.  Those services will need to be replaced  sometimes through expensive activities such as flood control projects, stormwater control practices and  improvements to drinking water plants.   Losses of natural high quality wetlands  may lead to declining opportunities for income through recreation-oriented industries, increase individual insurance costs and have other adverse impacts.

The FWS Status and Trends report provides important insights into what is happening to wetlands over time, but what is done in response to that information is up to all of us.

For the 2004-2009 Status and Trends report visit: http://www.fws.gov/wetlands/StatusAndTrends2009/ (includes reports, press release, questions and answers, key messages and science behind the report)

Past FWS Status and Trends Reports can be found at: http://www.fws.gov/wetlands/StatusAndTrends/index.html

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