Are Wetlands Worth Preserving?
YOU may call them marshes, swamps or bogs. They are areas that are permanently moist or wet, often being completely covered by fresh or salt water. There are thousands of square miles of such coastal wetlands in the United States alone.
Are these wetlands worth preserving? This is a question now argued heatedly by citizens in many communities. Why so? Because this land is desired for many uses.
As communities grow, more space is needed for housing, for waste disposal, airports, power plants, recreational facilities, and so forth. Wetlands commonly are taken over for these purposes. But now there are voices that say these wetlands should be preserved. So tempers flare, and legal battles rage.
The Fight That Goes On
“You call it wetland,” declared a retired New Jersey citizen. “I call it a wasteland.”
The land under dispute is a 186-acre sea-grass and sand-swamp tract on the Jersey Shore. Environmental experts say it is an essential part of the 1,000 acres of wetlands on Raritan Bay. Here the Jersey Central Power and Light Company desires to build a plant. And many citizens want them to.
“We need electric power and we need jobs and we need tax returns that can help us save and restore our town,” explained a chemical-plant worker.
Another resident added: “We reached the good life and now they say ‘cut down’ and they tell us to ‘cut back’ to save the birds and the fish. We are concerned with our families . . . it is not only a power plant, it is our lives.”
In another instance early last year, the American Dredging Company of Philadelphia was told that it could not dump dredge spoils on its own 149 acres of tidal marsh in Gloucester County. The company challenged the constitutionality of the New Jersey wetlands law and its implementation.
On September 1, 1973, a New York State Tidal Wetlands Act went into effect to preserve that state’s remaining tidal marshes. Almost immediately legal battles began. “FIRST CASE FILED ON WETLANDS LAW” proclaimed a front-page New York Times heading on November 15, 1973. A few days later, further challenges of the law by builders were announced.
And so the fight goes on. It rages in community after community along the eastern coast of the United States. On one hand, there are those who claim that wetlands are vital in many ways. But, on the other hand, there are those who view these areas as “wastelands,” and say that they should properly be used for industrial and community expansion.
The fight is a relatively new one, for only recently have many of the laws protecting wetlands been enacted. In the past, little if any thought was given to preserving these areas.
Much of New York city was formerly wetlands. However, by 1900 the once-extensive Manhattan marshes were practically filled in and built over. In 1900 there were still some 42.5 square miles of marshes in other boroughs of the city, but now only about 6 square miles remain. The filling in and building over of wetlands has also occurred extensively around other metropolitan areas.
From 1954 to 1965 some 45,000 acres of salt marsh were destroyed along the Atlantic coast from Maine to Delaware. New York’s Long Island lost nearly 30 percent of its marshes during this period. Thousands of acres of marshes in New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland have disappeared. It is said that in the last thirty-five years a quarter of the nation’s marshes have been destroyed by pollution, landfill or dredging!
But is this really so bad? Is not much of this land being put to better use now? For example, are not New York’s LaGuardia and Kennedy airports, the huge Co-op City in East Bronx and beautiful Shea Stadium of much greater value than the marshes that once existed in these places? Why have laws been passed to preserve wetlands?
More than Meets the Eye
Tidal marshes understandably appear to be wastelands to many persons. The flat expanses of coarse grasses seem unvaried and monotonous. Yet these marshes, bonds between sea and land, provide valuable services.
For example, marshes protect the land so that waves do not eat away shores and their human settlements. When they are destroyed, an environmental irony commonly results. Thus, after the marshes of southern Brooklyn and Queens in New York city had been filled in, the Army Corps of Engineers proposed construction of a $55.5-million hurricane barrier at the mouth of Jamaica Bay!
Also, marshes support many forms of wildlife that bring people pleasure. In the remaining salt marshes of New York’s Jamaica Bay, fishermen may still be seen, with skyscrapers in the distance, angling for flounder, striped bass and snapper. Digging for clams is another enjoyable pastime in tidal marshes. Or there is the thrill of seeing thousands of Canadian geese feeding on marsh ponds or filling the sky in great flights over Chesapeake Bay. When marshes are destroyed, ducks and herons and other birds and animals must leave an area or die.
Persons unacquainted with marshes may not know of these benefits. And yet, even when they learn of them, they may still argue that a marsh should be put to more profitable use. The tax revenue enjoyed when a marsh is developed into new housing or an industrial complex, they may claim, is of greater value to a community.
But is this really so? An understanding of marshes, and of recent world developments, is necessary in order to answer that question properly.
Appreciation for Value Grows
There is an admitted tendency to undervalue certain land—for example, a fertile wheat or corn field. This land may not appear very valuable. In fact, an acre of it may sell for only a fraction of what city property costs. But when you are hungry, what is more valuable—the farmland that produces food, or the land upon which there is a new home, a factory or some other building?
The answer, of course, is obvious. “But,” you may ask, “what has this to do with a tidal marsh?” A great deal. For it has been discovered that these marshes actually yield more food than do even the best wheat or corn fields! The book Life and Death of the Salt Marsh, by John and Mildred Teal, observes:
“The salt marsh produces nearly ten tons of organic matter on every acre in a year. By comparison, an average yield of wheat is about one and one half tons per acre per year, including stems and leaves. The best hay lands in this country produce about four tons per acre per year and the best wheat yields in the world exist in northern Europe where, with great effort, the farmers are able to coax seven tons per acre per year from the land.”
Marshlands are indeed tremendous food producers! But someone may be quick to point out that humans cannot live on marshland grasses, the principal ones of which in the eastern United States are the cordgrasses Spartina alterniflora and Spartina patens. This may be true. And yet, just as we eat the beef, lamb or pork raised on farmland grasses, so we can eat the animals that live on marsh vegetation.
Most marsh animals depend for nourishment on the tall coarse-leaved Spartina alterniflora. Some animals feed directly on this grass, but many more eat the products of its decay. The grass dies and breaks down into minute organic particles that fill the waters in the surrounding estuary with rich nutrients for marine life.
This nourishment can be utilized to produce fantastic yields of food. Parts of marshes and associated estuaries can be used for aquiculture (water farming). The raising of water animals is done in some Far Eastern lands, where over 1,000 pounds of shrimp and 2,000 pounds of fish are produced on each acre of marsh pond every year. And, amazingly, yields of up to 50,000 pounds of oyster meat per acre have been obtained in Japan’s Hiroshima Bay!
Aquiculture could also serve as an additional food source in the United States, that is, if the marshlands are preserved. But even when aquiculture is not practiced, some marshes along the Atlantic coast yield more food per acre in shellfish than the best cattle-raising land. For instance, the Niantic River estuary yields about 300 pounds of scallops per acre per year. And in one Massachusetts marsh, more than $300,000 worth of clams are harvested in a year.
But is food really so valuable that the rich food-producing marshes should be preserved? Well, how do you react when you hear that tens of thousands of people in the world have starved in recent months? And what do you think when you read such reports as that in the Ithaca Journal of March 22, 1974, which said: “Normally restrained experts on energy, agriculture, population, and the global economy are starting to predict bankruptcy, social breakdown, and starvation for as many as one billion people by late this year or early 1975”? Even the United States is threatened by this world food shortage.
In view of this, should men be destroying some of the best food-producing land on earth? Many people do not think so. And what has helped to influence their thinking has been a better understanding of the effect of the marshes upon ocean fish.
Farmlands and Nurseries
Marshes do not provide food simply for the animals living in the immediate area, but for fish in the coastal waters of the ocean as well. It is from these waters that 80 to 90 percent of the fish caught for world markets is estimated to come. And the food upon which most of these fish along the Atlantic coast depend for survival comes from the marshes—which are, in effect, farmlands for the fishes of the ocean.
Furthermore, many of these ocean fish are spawned in the protection of the marshes, or spend much of their early life there gaining strength and size. It is estimated that about two thirds of the commercial catch of fish on the East Coast of the United States live part of their lives in marsh estuaries. What happens, then, when the marshes are destroyed?
Consider New York city, for example. It once had a profitable fishing industry. But since most of its marshes have been destroyed and the waters polluted, its fishing industry is no more. This seems to be a trend. In fact, it is said that between 1955 and 1965, the haul of estuarine-dependent fish caught off the East and Gulf Coasts of the United States dropped by more than 100 million pounds!
Scientists are disturbed by such trends. John Gottschalk, as director of the U.S. Interior Department’s Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife, was emphatic: “There’s no doubt in my mind that the loss of wetlands is altering the ecology of the continental shelf.” “It is no longer a luxury item to save our estuaries,” declares Dr. Eugene P. Odum, as director of the University of Georgia’s Institute of Ecology. “It is a scientific necessity.”
In the March 1974 issue of National Parks & Conservation Magazine, naturalist John Hay wrote: “If we are to think of the marsh ‘realistically,’ we must understand that the land is more productive as the cradle of the sea than as housing developments. Without the tidal marsh, saltwater fish would not be spawned to grow up and go to sea and bring money to fishermen who catch them. Commercial fishing fleets along the Atlantic Coast are not doing very well these days, but they still net some $75,000,000 worth of fish that were nurtured in the coastal marshes and estuaries. Both the saltwater sports industry, which has an enormous cash income, and the shellfish industry are dependent on the nursery of coastal wetlands.”
Laws That Make Sense
Some people look to benefit financially by filling in and using marshes for other purposes. But as more knowledge regarding the value of marshes has been gained, laws have been passed to protect these areas. But still, people in community after community are fighting these laws, seeking to destroy the wetlands. The New York Times of February 21, 1974, had an interesting editorial on this matter, which concluded:
“So laws are passed to protect the wetlands for the ‘interest of the public welfare.’ And those laws are often challenged by developers for their own economic gain. Why does anyone try to get away with such action? Why? Because most people have no knowledge of why narrate created swamps and marshes nor of their immeasurable value to man.”
So often, humans act without knowledge of the marvelous way in which the earth is designed, with its many wonderful interdependent operations. Surely we are wise to learn as much as we can about this grand home of ours, and endeavor to care for it as our Creator purposed.