Also called bogs, marshes, or swamps, wetlands can be found on every continent. The wetland is a vital ecosystem rich in biodiversity that also happens to protect us from storm surges and purify groundwater.
To discuss the importance of wetlands and their conservation, ESAL and the Ecological Society of America co-hosted a virtual event on May 8 titled “Protecting Wetlands for Healthy Communities and Ecosystems.”
Royal C. Gardner is a professor of law at Stetson University, who specializes in the niche field of wetland law and policy. He kicked off the event with an overview of a case currently before the Supreme Court, Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). At the heart of the case is whether wetlands are considered “waters of the United States” protected by the Clean Water Act. Federal agencies in the past have attempted to define the types of waters that are protected but the rules remain controversial.
Although oral arguments for Sackett v. EPA took place in October 2022, the Supreme Court had yet to make its ruling, which may set the precedent for the Clean Water Act for years to come.1 “It’s really hard to say where they’re going to draw the line,” said Gardner.
Erika Harris, senior planner for the Puget Sound Regional Council, has overseen constructed wetlands in and around the greater Seattle metropolitan area. She views wetlands as an important strategy for climate resilience: “We need these sponges so our communities don’t flood and provide water when it’s drier.”
Harris offered case studies of several stormwater wetland parks that have been successfully built and integrated into local communities. These stormwater parks are an example of green infrastructure with multiple benefits, from recreational trails and wildlife viewing to practical functions like stormwater treatment and flood control. Communities are often pleasantly surprised by how much they enjoy the wetland parks and the wildlife they attract.
Historically, the expansion of agricultural lands has led to the clearing and loss of natural wetlands. But now, urban development is driving wetland reduction.
Both speakers noted the need for providing advocacy and education on the ecological importance of wetlands. Gardner encouraged conscientious citizens to get involved in the political process, by voting, or submitting public comments whenever environmental regulations or projects are proposed. He also encouraged people to take the even bigger step of running for political office, which would make the biggest impact.
Scientists with expertise in natural resources can serve on local advisory boards and planning commissions. They may also find influential positions working for government agencies, which require scientists to inform environmental policy.
To be in a wetland can be a “cathedral-like experience,” said Gardner, who brought up the cultural and spiritual aspects of wetlands as a natural refuge. He often takes his law students on a field trip into the swamps of Florida.
In Gardner’s words, “It’s one thing to read about it in a book. It’s another to wade into the swamp and to recognize how beautiful it is.”
A video of the event is available on ESAL's YouTube channel.
1 At the time of this event, the Supreme Court had not yet ruled on Sackett v. EPA. On Thursday, May 25, 2023, the Court finally issued a 5-4 decision, ruling that only wetlands with a “continuous surface connection” to bodies of water can be regulated under the Clean Water Act.