MUD'S LITTLE ACRES
Nothing good ever happens there - in the movies. It's a spawning ground of murky evil. It's where that strange guy lives, at home with the swarming insects and snapping gators. It's a swamp, a lagoon, a marsh, a bog, a bayou.
All of these fall into the category of wetlands. Not surprisingly, wetlands are defined in terms of water and its relationship to the soil. In reality much good can be accomplished in what looks like a shoe-sucking, when-is-this-field-trip-going-to-be-over, should-I-be-drinking-quinine mini-purgatory.
After Katrina, amidst all the anguish and denial, we heard some talk that lost wetlands would have offered some protection. What could an already saturated stretch of land accomplish in the face of that onslaught of water when the levees were breached? Actually, it's the rich soil and plant life that serve to slow down the flowing water. And, counter intuitively, what looks like organic litter - leaves and stems - along with the particular chemicals in the soil, serve year round to filter and clean our water.
This is why ponds, especially man-made ponds, don't quite fit the bill as "wetlands" in the context of ecological value. Although statistics recently released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service indicate a first-ever net gain in wetlands, it is important to note that these figures do include ponds. Taking that into account, we are still losing our wetlands. This country has so far lost half of its natural wetlands.
We can't always predict the effect of such losses. Bird Flu, for example, may owe some measure of its threat to the loss of wetlands. Deprived worldwide of their former habitats, wild birds are consorting with domestic fowl such as chickens and ducks.
Unfortunately, at a time when consistent standards and well thought out regulation would help serve the big picture, the Supreme Court has returned these powers to the states. Tossed into the arena of local politics, land grabs, and short-term gains, regulation has in some areas (such as Houston), met the fate of a milk sipper at the Belly Up Saloon: literally bit the dust. Even defenders with martial arts training were no match for the caravan of dirt-laden trucks.
While Florida is losing much of its wetlands to strip malls and sub-divisions, New Orleans suffered as a result of the very levees built to control flooding. Alterations to the path of the Mississippi created a more swiftly flowing river, resulting in a decrease of silt deposits in the delta.
About six percent of the planet's land mass is wetlands. Connecticut's come close at five percent. That translates to 173,000 acres. Not just for coastal areas, freshwater wetlands in Connecticut include the West Rock Ridge Vernal Pool in Hamden, the Connecticut River Silver Maple Floodplain Forest in Rocky Hill, the Mohawk State Forest Black Spruce Bog in Cornwall, the Calcareos Red Maple-Black Ash-American Elm Swamp in South Canaan, and the Atlantic White Cedar Swamp in New London County.
Connecticut's wetlands are not immune to political wrangling. A friend of mine lives near a parcel of land once designated as passive open space and which includes wetlands. Several years ago the town decided to build a soccer field on this land. Never mind that there were already seven soccer fields in the town; never mind that the water would be contaminated with motor oil, gas, anti-freeze, transmission and brake fluids; never mind that the activity and screaming parents would scare off wildlife. The agenda marched on like the Terminator in overdrive.
Although my friend joined with a handful of others to fight for it, the town sent in bulldozers without permission from any of the boards. What finally halted the venture was a lack of funds. Yet there is still talk of creating a ball park and fields.
My friend remarked that the biggest obstacle is the attitude of the citizens. "They have a teenage mentality," she says. "It won't happen to us."
Wetlands do not shimmer in the setting sun. Nor do they rise up in white-capped majesty. Like a battered briefcase, their value is not apparent at a quick glance. Yet burying them can be as devastating for our children's future as bulldozing our schools and hospitals. And unlike the mountains and the sea, without constant vigilance, we can't trust that they will be there when we wake up in the morning.