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

The Wetland Wanderer: Problem Definition: One of the Hardest and Most Important Things We Do

by Brenda Zollitsch, Policy Analyst, ASWM

ASWM’s program staff spend almost all of our time working to help others address wetland problems. ASWM gets requests every day to work on issues that range from permitting linear energy projects and improving wetlandproblems5assessment, mitigation and restoration practices to combatting invasive species and better understanding the effects of silviculture on coastal wetlands. At ASWM this initiates a process to sort out problems from causes and causes from solutions, so that we can make decisions about what options exist to address the root causes of problems under various circumstances.

Noted environmental policy scholar and practitioner Daniel Fiorino[1] from American University writes that environmental policy problems are “embedded in the public mind, interrelated and interdependent, affect societies at different levels of growth and transcend…boundaries.”  All of this is true for wetlands and we must address these issues wholistically to be effective in analyzing them and proposing viable policy options.  Often there are misperceptions about values of wetlands. Policies affecting wetlands are often connected with other pressing environmental and economic issues.  They affect various communities and demographic groups in uneven ways, and cross multiple local, county and state political boundaries.  Our recent national state wetland status and trends report also illustrates the vast diversity of program types, policies, and staffing levels that serve as the frontline of state wetland protection and conservation efforts.  For all of these reasons, working with partners to improve wetland policy and management approaches is a tall order.

introducephragmites0915163 Take, for example, the growing number of requests ASWM has received to address the topic of invasive species and wetlands. There is a wide range of invasive species with an even wider ranging number of impacts.   Let’s narrow the invasives issue to analyzing the problem of the spread of Phragmites into new areas. To analyze this issue effectively, we have to look at much more than treatment of individual sites.  We need to be looking at the root causes for why Phragmites is out competing native plants; otherwise, we are just applying a temporary bandaid and not a solution.  This analysis for Phragmites and other invasive species frequently points to a suite of approaches that (in combination) increase the likelihood of success.

The vastness of potential causes can be daunting.  In the case of Phragmites, we need to understand location-specific information, patterns of land use, plant adaptation and regeneration strategies, the extent of invasion in the region, and regulatory controls in place to address these different components.  On the larger scale, we need to be keeping in mind how that land is changing due to climate change, and local anthropogenic disturbance such as urban sprawl with its associated increases in imperviousness. In addition to the science and ecosystem dynamics of the issue, we also need to look at the social and economic contexts that bring about situations where Phragmites might invade a wetland.  Have there been local development pressures leading to soil disturbance creating conditions that enable Phragmites to become established?  Are there enough regulatory staff to make inspections of construction sites?  Are the state’s permits able to take these issues under consideration?  Does the state lead permitting actions or does the Corps?  Are cumulative impacts creating or compounding the problem?  Is the state government open to looking at the challenges of climate change and how climate may be impacting the spread of invasives in their region?  Is the state administration and legislature interested in addressing the larger issues?  Are invasive species on that state’s policy radar or better yet, their formal policy agenda?

As ASWM delves into these specific policy areas, we work with partners to provide a careful examination and definition of the problems we are addressing. To assist us in this process, ASWM consistently convenes national (or regional if the project is more limited in scope) working groups to help guide ASWM in this definitional process. When ASWM conducted a stream project a couple of years ago to collect and analyze information to assist states strengthen protections for streams, we worked with a national workgroup to identify the scope of the problem, the information we needed to collect to answer our specific research questions, and the measures for collecting the data we needed to answer those questions. The same has been true for an ongoing wetland restoration project, the previously mentioned state status and trends project and another project to improve access to high quality wetland training. By engaging a range of policy pipline6actors and other stakeholders in our work, focusing our projects around clear and defined issues, and committing to transparency and documentation of all these related decisions, we hope that ASWM’s products will have greater value to our members and the wetland community in general.

In 2017 ASWM is planning to take on new challenges. This includes one that will focus on improving state engagement of wetland permitting of linear energy transmission projects and another that will identify ways to increase the quantity and quality of integration between wetland and other water management programs. Thus we will once again begin the careful and critical process of defining the challenges, root causes, indicators, and alternatives.   We invite you to engage with us and to share your insights and resources.  This process is one of joint exploration and learning.  It is simultaneously one of the hardest and most rewarding activities we undertake at ASWM.  We couldn’t accomplish it without partners and we invite you along for the ride.

To learn more about ASWM’s projects, planning and processes, feel free to contact me at

[1] Daniel J. Fiorino is the Director of the Center for Environmental Policy and Executive in Residence in the School of Public Affairs at American University

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