Wetlands are all around us and we need to protect them. Wetlands began disappearing soon after European colonization of the United States. More than half of the 215 million acres of wetlands that existed at the time of settlement have been destroyed. Only 100 million acres remain today. Throughout much of our nation’s history, and even today, wetlands were viewed as obstacles to development that should be eliminated. Federal laws provided incentives for draining and destroying wetlands. Only in the last twenty-five years have public and government understanding of the importance of wetlands grown enough to begin to change some incentives to protecting and restoring wetlands.
Bryan County has approximately 12,694 acres of non-tidal wetlands, and 25,857 acres of tidal wetlands (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Environmental Assessment, 2005, CESAS OP F (1145b2). It is a county rich in wetlands - both fresh and saltmarsh. It is unknown how many acres of wetlands have been lost to development in Bryan County, but it is safe to say that the wetlands that remain need to be protected.
WHAT GOOD IS A WETLAND?
What good is a wetland? The US Environmental Protection Agency has an answer (http://www.epa.gov/owow/wetlands/vital/wetlands.html):
Wetlands help regulate water levels within watersheds; improve water quality; reduce flood and storm damages; provide important fish and wildlife habitat; and support hunting, fishing, and other recreational activities.
WHAT IS A WETLAND?
Wetlands are the life-giving link between water and land. "Wetlands" are marshes, swamps, bogs, and similar areas found in flat vegetated areas, in depressions in the landscape, and between dry land and water along the edges of streams, rivers, lakes, and coastlines. Wetlands can be found in nearly every county and climatic zone in the United States and wetlands exist in your area or very close to it.
Because we live in the coastal plain of Georgia, our land is flat; therefore, it’s difficult to sometimes tell where the wetlands are because it only takes a few inches change in topography to make the land low enough to be a wetland. Flatwoods of pine and shrubs can have pockets of wetlands that serve a very good purpose to people and wildlife. As people understand ecological processes better, attitudes towards wetlands change. We now know that wetlands are, in fact, valuable natural resources. Whether drier or wetter, bigger or smaller, wetlands provide important benefits to people and the environment.
WHAT CAN YOU DO TO PROTECT WETLANDS IN YOUR AREA?
Be aware of wetlands and where they occur, understand that they provide habitat for many kinds of plants and animals, that they help to regulate flooding by absorbing rainwater, and that they improve water quality by cleansing pollutants.
If you think someone is disturbing wetlands unlawfully, call the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Savannah District, and report the event. Learn more about wetlands by researching books and web sites. If you have wetlands on your land, leave them alone and protect them. Remember, wetland health is intimately tied to human health. What we do to the environment, we do to ourselves.
Mary Elfner is Georgia's Important Bird Area's Coordinator and has her own environmental consulting business in Savannah.