Myth: Once a Wetland Is Gone, It’s Gone for Good

Wetlands provide valuable services for society, including cleaner water and keeping pesky mosquitoes in check. The sad fact, however, is that a significant portion of wetlands in the United States has been lost in the name of economic development. In Illinois alone, over 85 percent of the original wetlands in existence in 1780 have been lost to agriculture and development.

Despite these losses, there is some good news. While we can never hope to perfectly replicate nature, recent research demonstrates how degraded and “lost” wetlands can undergo ecological interventions to restore important aspects of their natural function. We can even create wetlands in areas where none existed previously.

Why care? We now know that wetlands provide tremendous economic benefits to society. Just ask the shrimpers in Louisiana whose very livelihood depends on the protective coastal marshes.

The Situation: Chicago Was Once a Wetland

The city we know as Chicago was once a wetland. Glaciers from the last Ice Age left behind a flat expanse of poorly drained, mucky land adjacent to Lake Michigan—which at that time was marsh and wet prairie. Out of this mucky ooze sprang the muscular granite, steel, and glass that frame Chicago, metropolis of the Midwest.

But this transformation was not easy and included a cost seemingly forgotten. The expansive fresh water marshes once found along Lake Michigan are now gone, filled as part of an aggressive land-creation program.

A significant part of Chicago had to be raised in elevation to facilitate drainage. Wetland destruction in many other places during this time, primarily on land drained for farms or industry, has led to serious environmental and economic impacts on local communities, as seen in degraded water quality, increased soil erosion, greater flood damages, and loss of habitat and biodiversity.

On a broader scale, over 85 percent of the original wetlands in the state of Illinois in 1780 have been lost to agriculture and development.

The Problem: The Disconnection of Wetlands and the Human Community

Much attention has been paid in recent years to assessing and quantifying the ecosystem services and values derived from wetlands (see the September 2009 Myth). However, unlike grain or pig’s feet, less tangible items such as cleaner water, carbon sequestration, or flood control that wetlands provide are not traded in the commodities markets, so determining their economic value can be tough.

But that hasn’t stopped us from trying. In a classic study in Nature, R. Costanza estimated the economic value of wetland ecosystem services and values to be approximately $37,000 per acre per year.

And we know that wetland-related tourism—like hunting, hiking, bird watching, and kayaking—can add significant dollars local economies. In total, wetland-related ecotourism activities pumped $59 billion to our national economy in 1991, according to the EPA. Lost in all these studies, however, is the fact that wetland destruction results in our physical and, for some, our spiritual disconnection from the landscape.

The Solution: Reconnect People with Wetlands

Given the immense ecological and economic value of wetlands, we must strive to: 1) vigorously protect existing high quality wetlands, 2) restore and rehabilitate degraded wetlands whenever possible, and 3) where feasible, create new wetlands where they haven’t existed for generations. Without wetlands, our quality of life and wellbeing are greatly compromised.

Admittedly, wetland restoration and rehabilitation are not cheap. In Minnesota, for example, wetland restoration costs were pegged at $95 to $30,000 per acre depending on the purpose of restoration.

So while the cost to restore wetlands can vary substantially, the real question becomes how to pay for wetland restoration. While there are several government programs that encourage landowners to restore wetlands, we need to demonstrate the true value of land by defining the benefits our natural landscapes can provide (i.e., the “ecosystem services”).

Simply put, we need to show that our land can be worth more wet than dry. For example, studies have projected that an acre of farmland can earn three times as much income for the landowner as a wetland than it can growing row crops like corn or soybeans

How Can Each of Us Help Protect and Enhance Wetlands?

  • Keep an eye out for new development projects in your local community. If it appears that a wetland is on or near the property, check with your municipal building and zoning department to make sure safeguards are in place to protect the wetland.
  • Local referendums for open space acquisition often involve property with significant wetland features. Encourage your friends and neighbors to support public programs that preserve these wetland resources.
  • Can you lend a hand? Consider reaching out to volunteer for conservation organizations whose programs enhance wetlands in your community. Invasive plants pose a constant threat to our wetlands and help is always needed to help remove them. Seed collection days require many hands and play an important part in enhancing plant diversity. Why not make a New Year’s resolution to donate a few hours of labor on a weekend next spring to help keep our wetlands healthy?
  • Visit a wetland! Better yet, introduce a child to a wetland. Once you’ve experienced the beauty of this special habitat and understand more about these vibrant ecosystems, it’s likely you’ll never forget them.
  • Clean water and healthy wetlands go hand in hand. Encourage your elected officials to support vigorous enforcement of the federal Clean Water Act.

Written by John Sentell, The Wetlands Initiative; James Montgomery, Environmental Science Program, DePaul University; and Bob Kirschner, Chicago Botanic Garden