Sunday, February 14, 2010

Nature’s Kidneys

Though we tend not to consider our wetlands until they get in the way of a development project, they play a unique ecological role. They are like our kidneys, a filtration organ cleansing our environment. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), using more rigorous language, defines wetlands as "those areas that are inundated or saturated by surface or groundwater at a frequency and duration sufficient to support, and that under normal circumstances do support, a prevalence of vegetation typically adapted for life in saturated soil conditions. Wetlands generally include swamps, marshes, bogs and similar areas." Wetlands | US EPA

Given such a critical role, you’d think we’d be more careful with our wetlands. Au contraire: “In the 1600s, over 220 million acres of wetlands are thought to have existed in the lower 48 states. Since then, extensive losses have occurred, and over half our original wetlands have been drained and converted to other uses. Between the 1950s and 1970s an estimated 58,500 acres of wetlands were lost” (EPA 1995).

Nowadays, perhaps feeling a little guilty (or simply better at tweaking our laws), wetland mitigation or offsets help us get around the legality of destroying those inconvenient soggy lands by allowing us to build another wetland someplace else. That kind of structural relocating makes sense if you’re renovating an old house and want the bathroom on the third floor instead of the first. Trouble is recreating a wetland that took thousands of years to weave itself into the infinite biological matrix called Nature cannot be so easily replicated by a backhoe and a garden hose. Many experts think that constructed wetlands don’t really capture at all the breathtaking complexity that is a wetland.

When I think that we have destroyed over 50% of our wetlands here in America during the last five-hundred years, I’m reminded of the total decimation of the Easter Island forests that Jared Diamond describes in “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail.” Generations of Easter Islanders used the once plentiful trees to roll great stone icons across the island. They didn’t ‘see’ that they were destroying their environment because it happened so slowly. A single generation of islanders would think the relative loss of trees sustainable—if they thought about such things at all. But you have to wonder: Halfway through this forest destruction (for Easter Island civilization collapsed when the trees were gone), was there a moment when someone foresaw the calamity to come?

Just in the same way, we have destroyed much of what was biologically in place when we had a healthy environment. Now, it’s questionable. We are often such hasty folks that we simply marvel at our particular longevity (some of us make it to one hundred) and forget our life spans are but fleeting moments to Nature. .

February second was World Wetlands Day. “It marks the date of the signing of the Convention on Wetlands on 2 February 1971, in the Iranian city of Ramsar on the shores of the Caspian Sea.” It went by unnoticed in our local media. But Nature, because it is simply a mindless biological algorithm, never forgets.

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