Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Where land meets water: Research continues to reveal the value of our wetlands

Wood frog laying eggs in Kettle Pond vernal pool at
Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Thomas Tetzner
With American Wetlands Month, May, coming to a close, we’d like to take some time to recognize the importance of our Northeast wetlands and the work that our experts are doing to protect them. Wetlands act as the kidneys for our communities, cleansing water, filtering pollution and sediment, and regulating nature’s systems.

They are most simply defined as the vital links between land and water. Some of their characteristics, such as flooding and insects, earned wetlands a bad reputation in history, and people filled them for farming or building. Research revealed their true values—drinking water, flood control, buffers for extreme weather, different habitats and wildlife, and places for fishing and other recreation—and legislation, namely the Clean Water Act in 1977, marked our need to protect them.

Loss of our wetlands has slowed in the U.S., and while we’ve made great strides, our national remains on an alarming downward trend. A report released last fall, the Service's National Wetlands Inventory Status and Trends Report, shows that the rate at which we’re losing wetlands more than doubled from 2004 to 2009. During those years, we lost a net 62,300 acres. In the Northeast, areas of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and upstate New York experienced the highest rate of freshwater wetland loss.

Northeast ecologist recognized for contribution to wetlands science

We’re still learning about these unique spaces, and one of our very own, ecologist Ralph Tiner, has been hailed as a top influence of wetlands science. Ralph, the Northeast wetlands inventory coordinator, was recognized by the Society of Wetland Scientists for his seminal paper on geographically isolated wetlands. The paper, “Geographically isolated wetlands of the United States,” was identified and featured in the international journal Wetlands as one of 30 scientific papers furthering the field of wetland science during the past 30 years.

Ralph Tiner has worked for the Service since 1977.
He is an internationally recognized wetland scientist
with over 200 publications to his credit, including several
wetland field guides and two textbooks used in college
wetland ecology courses. He is also an adjunct
professor at the University of Massachusetts
Amherst and Virginia Tech. Credit: USFWS
His paper emphasized the importance of our nation’s “geographically isolated wetlands,” a term he coined and described as wetlands that are completely surrounded by upland at the local scale. At the time, regulation of such wetlands was relaxed due to Supreme Court decisions.

The term is now part of the lexicon of all wetland scientists, and his definition has been widely accepted as the standard. Among these wetlands are vernal pools, Carolina bays of the Atlantic Coastal Plain, prairie pothole wetlands of the upper Midwest, coastal plain ponds, karst basin wetlands, and Great Lakes alvar wetlands.

They provide many of the typical wetland functions, such as aiding in flood protection and removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. They also act as

1) local watering holes for wildlife,
2) breeding pools for many amphibians that spend their adult lives in neighboring uplands,
3) principal breeding grounds for North American waterfowl, and
4) vital stepping stones for birds and other animals migrating across dry landscapes.

Since isolation promotes development of unique wildlife, many rare and endangered species can be found in such places.

“Isolated wetlands contribute much to the nation’s biodiversity, far more than might be expected for their often small size and patchy distribution,” Ralph says. “Federal regulations typically focus on wetlands along navigable waters and their tributaries, so the upland location of isolated wetlands puts them under increasing pressure for development.”

Some states have enacted legislation to include these wetlands in their state regulatory programs, but many states have no state wetland regulation at all and rely on federal efforts to manage and conserve wetlands. Natural resource agencies and organizations need to work with private landowners to conserve these vital wetlands.

We recently worked with reporter Anaridis Rodriguez at our local news station, Channel 22 WWLP in Chicopee, Mass., to chat about the role that wetlands play in our environments. Watch the video.

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