I have a love/hate relationship with wetlands.
A wetland is one of those places where a human just shouldn’t go. There’s nothing glamorous about a wetland. They can smell bad. They’re filled with all sorts of creepy, crawly creatures and poisonous things. And of course, they’re wet – if you’ve ever walked on a floating bog you know to tread lightly as to avoid finding yourself in a sinkhole with your boots filling with water.
As an artist who tells stories of biodiversity conservation, I’ve found myself in that exact situation…my boots filling with water, as I am being engulfed by a wetland with my tripod and camera safely held above my head, on more than one occasion. As I wiggle my way out of the mud and water and back onto the drier, spongy surface – I’m undoubtedly annoyed, but by the time I’ve poured the water out of my boots I’m just happy that my camera gear is safe. My temporary hate for a wetland quickly fades back to love and I move on with my work.
While this may sound miserable to some, this is my idea of a good day at the “office.” Sure, a day in the dunes or in an old growth forest may yield a prettier picture but spending a day here means I’m telling the story of one of nature’s unsung heros – the wetland.
The inhospitable nature of a wetland makes them unfamiliar to most people. Few end up donning waders to venture into the depths of a wetland in their lifetime, and with good reason. But as far as wildlife habitat goes, wetlands are absolutely invaluable. And it’s not just the fish and the birds and the muskrats that need wetlands – we humans are completely reliant on them as well. Most people just don’t think about what they do for us.
Wetlands come in all shapes and sizes. They’re found all over the globe anywhere there’s water. Near the coasts there are marshes, estuaries and mangrove forests. Inland, there are swamps, bogs and fens. These areas exemplify the concept of ecosystem services because they do so many important things that make life outside of the wetland better for us humans.
Aside from being biological engines that support wildlife systems like aquatic food webs (and in turn sport and commercial fisheries) and migratory bird habitat (bringing birdwatchers and an ecotourism industry), a wetland acts as a sponge, a water filter and an air filter. As a sponge, a wetland can soak up potential flood waters during storm surge on the coasts or heavy rain events near cities and along rivers. When fertilizers runoff of farm fields, it’s the wetland vegetation along rivers and at the mouths of lakes that soak up excess phosphorus and nitrogen – keeping our drinking and recreational water clean. And from a climate change perspective, wetlands are hugely important carbon sinks.
Humans have destroyed a lot of the world’s wetlands and in some cases have suffered the consequences. The coastal wetlands of Louisiana have experienced huge losses, a mix of Mississippi River modification and oil and gas exploration infrastructure has caused much of the wetland habitat along the coast to erode away. This erosion was an unforeseen consequence of human development but the result was a loss of the important natural buffer that protected the city of New Orleans from storm surge.
In Staten Island, coastal wetlands were extensively filled in and built upon. And while residential space was gained, the protection from storm surge was lost. And Hurricane Sandy was able to push water inland, unimpeded.
Again, these were unforeseen consequences of historic land use decisions that were made by developers who were ignorant to the fact that important natural infrastructure would be lost. But you can see why they made those decisions at the time. At first glance, a new oceanside neighborhood is better than some smelly old wetland, right? We now know that sentiment was wrong.
These are tragic reminders of the human disregard for ecosystem services. Nature is often undervalued because of shortsighted decision making. Over time, a forest is worth more to society than, say a copper mine. A prairie full of pollinators can do more to stock our fruit stands than, say a strip mall. And a coastal wetland can do more for our fishing industry, public health and safety than, say a beachside resort.
While most of our wetlands are already gone, I say we should support the protection and restoration of what little wetland habitat remains in the world – if not for the fish and the birds and the muskrats, then for ourselves.conservation, habitats, jason whalen, nature, the nature conservancy, tnc, wetlands, wildlife, world wetlands day