U.S. Wetlands Are Disappearing Faster Than Ever, and We Just Watch

I am increasingly faced with problems that seem so very far beyond my capacity to solve them. I am almost relieved when some big problem comes flying at me that is real, clearly defined, and imminently solvable. If somebody tells me that we're out of firewood and it's about to get real cold, I've got a truck, gas and oil, an old but solid Husqvarna 262, and a Forest Service permit to cut a few cords of standing dead. I have a clear solution to the problem.

The solution to our wetlands problem is clear as well. There's no question about their function--flood control, water filtration, seafood and freshwater fish nurseries, aquifer recharge, waterfowl production; and, in the case of coastal wetlands, all of these along with the most basic function of all: protection of land from being overwhelmed by the sea and those of us who live there from being destroyed, or having our properties and our life savings disappear with the first hurricane of every season.

There's no mystery here, no hidden agendas, no $50 haircut talking heads trying to tell us it's all a Commie plot. It is just wetlands, doing what they've done for millennia.

So we must ask ourselves why, if we know that wetlands perform all these functions, can we allow them to disappear, year after year, thousands of acres of our most economically critical lands dredged, filled, cut with canals, ruined, swept away by ill-conceived projects, our money and our hunting and fishing and wildlife evaporated?

A new study of our coastal wetlands released jointly by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service contains some disturbing findings. Between 2004 and 2009 (the length of the study), our coastal wetlands declined by 360,720 acres. That's 80,160 acres per year, a 25 percent faster decline than the period of the last study, which ran from 1998 to 2004. It's as if we have a best friend who is seriously ill with a treatable disease, and we refuse to help him, though we watch closely, each day, as he shakes with fever, begs for water, becomes unable to walk or stand.

Of course, the Gulf Coast experienced the largest extent of wetlands loss--257, 150 acres, 71 percent of the total losses. Coastal Louisiana has the unenviable distinction of being the fastest disappearing land mass on the planet. I've never understood how we can be Americans, world-renowned for being problem-solvers, and let this continue. I've never understood how the most popular television show in our country could be about a family of waterfowl hunters, while the wetlands that have brought us some of the world's greatest waterfowling--a hunting opportunity restored from almost nothing in the 1930s--disappear at such an astounding rate. Even some bureaucrat who cares nothing for hunting or birds might shiver at the $127 billion--yes, billion--spent to rebuild New Orleans and surrounding areas after Hurricane Katrina. He or she might pause to ponder the $1.1 billion spent to build the American Great Wall, the Lake Borgne Surge Barrier constructed after the storm. This massive structure won't keep any barbarians at bay--it will try to keep the ocean out of New Orleans, a function once done for free by the thousands of square miles of wetlands that we destroyed over the past 50 years.

We lost 443,780 acres of forested wetlands between 2004-2009 throughout the watersheds closest to our coasts. Those are the big southern swampland forests, renowned in literature, part of our national and regional identity, some of our last great holdout country against the ever-increasing pavement, traffic, suburban sprawl and endless horizon-to-horizon corn and soybean fields. What are we losing the forested wetlands to? Mostly logging and silviculture. According to the report, the losses result not from the logging itself, but from the ditching and draining that accompanies it, the activities that convert wetlands to, say, pine plantations, the long term equivalent to a monoculture cornfield. What allows these conversions, in a nation where former President George W. Bush once declared that we will accept "no net loss" of wetlands? A confusing glitch in the Clean Water Act. As the reports says, "…no CWA permit is required for silvicultural activities in approximately 6.5 million acres of forested wetlands including pine flatwood wetlands, seepage forests, saturated hammocks, pond pine woodland and forested wet flats. It was in these forested habitats that wetland losses were the greatest."

Wetland losses will mean the end of the party for us, and the end of the party, economically, on most of our watersheds, as we pay out the billions in federal flood insurance money, and the billions in FEMA money, and the billions to rebuild over and over, in the same places. We'll be broke, we'll be flooded, we'll have polluted water, and we won't have any ducks to hunt, either.

And it really is as simple as cutting firewood for a winter that we know is coming. We know how to protect wetlands. In a world where people are perfectly willing to make more money by filling wetlands and causing floods for other people to pay for, where people believe that "if I can get away with it, it is right" there is no alternative to regulation. If states and local communities do not have the guts to protect our most basic resources, we'll have to rely on a restored Clean Water Act that can help stop the relentless loss of wetlands in our country.

As to the loss of the vast riches of duck hunting, seafood, adventure, land, and culture in coastal Louisiana, the answer is the just as simple. Reconnect the Mississippi River to its floodplain and let the most powerful river in North America do for free what we will never be able to afford to do: restore the land, build marsh and swamp and hardwood hammock the way it has for the past 10,000 years until we leveed it and created a world-class land loss disaster whose consequences will be unbearable.

For a video tour of some of the best country on earth, and a good explanation of the problem, and the solution, featuring my friend Ryan Lambert of Cajun Fishing Adventures in Buras, Louisiana, check the video out.

We know the problem. We have the solutions. All we need to do is go to work.