Wetlands are among the most productive and valuable ecosystems of the biological world, and include marshes, wet meadows, wooded swamps and bogs, as well as natural floodplains along rivers, streams, lakes and ponds. While wetlands may be described as areas where land and water meet or where soils are saturated for extended periods, standing water may or may not always be obvious, and waterlogged soils may exist only part of the year.
Once considered wastelands - good only for draining, filling or the dumping of hazardous wastes and garbage - wetlands are now widely recognized as a vital link between our land and water resources, and an important part of our natural heritage. In spite of this, these special places continue to be decimated and degraded at an alarming rate. In New York, almost half of our wetlands have been lost. Across the nation, nearly 460,000 acres of wetlands per year have been destroyed over the last several decades. They have been drained for agriculture or converted to housing tracts, industrial parks and shopping malls, and rivers have been dredged or dammed. And, in spite of state and federal regulation, approximately 20 percent of New York's estimated 2.4 million acres of freshwater wetlands are currently left unprotected, with the majority of these wetlands in the lake plains of western New York and the Adirondacks.
So why worry about wetlands? Today, less than half of our nation's original wetlands remain, and as these special places disappear, their significance and importance within the intricate web of life has become painfully clear. Serving as lush and protected nurseries for countless species of plants and animals, wetlands provide critical resting, nesting, spawning and feeding grounds for tiny invertebrates, fish, amphibians, reptiles, aquatic mammals and perhaps 75 percent of all North American birds. Aquatic plants and algae convert the energy of sunlight and nutrients into food for animals, and animals in turn help scatter the pollen and seeds of plants. Wetlands are home to turtles, frogs, muskrat, mink, beaver, cattail, swamp rose, waterfowl and songbirds. Damselflies and dragonflies, salamanders and snapping turtles, wetland wildflowers and weathered old trees - all are woven together in an amazing web of interdependency, complexity and connection. For many people, gifts of beauty, tranquility and spiritual renewal are found here as well, if we choose to seek them.
Wetlands, such as those found at the CWC Loomis Goose Creek Wetland Preserve, are among the most productive and valuable ecosystems of the biological world.
Photo by Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy
Wetlands provide other benefits, too. We are only now beginning to appreciate that these dynamic life-support systems regulate and recharge ground water supplies, filter out and detoxify many manmade pollutants, and absorb incredible quantities of heavy metals, organic wastes and sediments. Their presence minimizes flooding and stabilizes water flow, buffers shorelines, and protects agricultural soils, reservoirs and navigational channels by slowing water velocity and reducing erosion. Wetlands also provide unique opportunities for recreation, education, scientific research and personal encounters with the natural world, and for many, their beauty and intrinsic value are beyond measure. In spite of all we know, wetland losses continue, and much more remains to be done to preserve and protect these special places.
Becky Nystrom is a professor of biology at Jamestown Community College, a longtime CWC supporter and volunteer, and a founding trustee of the CWC. The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy is a local not-for-profit organization that is dedicated to preserving and enhancing the water quality, scenic beauty, and ecological health of the lakes, streams, wetlands and watersheds of the Chautauqua region. Since its inception in 1990, the Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy has conserved more than 688 acres of land, including critical wetland and shoreland habitat such as the Wells Bay Lakeshore Forest, Stow Farm Lakeshore, Loomis Goose Creek wetlands, Prendergast Point wetlands, Elm Flats wetlands, Chautauqua Lake outlet/Chadakoin wetlands and other critical areas. For more information, visit chautauquawatershed.org or call 664-2166.