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Wetlands Still Being Lost

Destruction of crucial habitat has been slowed - but not stopped.

Wetlands of all sizes play many crucial roles from providing habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife species, to natural water purification systems. Concern about the rapid lost of wetland areas has resulted in many steps being taken over the past few decades to protect and restore wetlands.

Although there have been many notable successes, overall management of wetlands in the United States still gets a failing grade. According to a recent report by the National Research Council (NRC), the total area of wetlands is continuing to diminish.

William Mitsch, director of the Olentangy River Wetlands Research Park at Ohio State University, and who holds professorships in natural resources and environmental science at Ohio State, said the report "recommends improving current federal mitigation laws to achieve the goal of stopping the net loss of wetlands." Mitigation usually means creating or restoring more than one acre of wetland for every acre of wetland filled.

Efforts to restore wetlands, however, have made some headway: The rate at which wetland areas are being lost has slowed. Between 1986 to 1997, the estimated annual rate of wetland loss was only 23 percent of losses that occurred during the previous 10 years, according to the NRC report.

The U.S. Clean Water Act requires those who want to discharge materials - such as soil or sand - into a wetland to get permission from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before doing so. It also requires individuals to provide 'compensatory mitigation' - such as creating a wetland elsewhere.

"Some sites we studied met the criteria for permit compliance and show promise of developing into functional wetlands," Mitsch said. "But in many cases, wetlands are created in areas where they simply can't thrive."

Since the 1780s, the contiguous United States has lost more than 50 percent of its wetlands. The report outlined a number of recommendations for stopping the loss of wetlands. The recommendations included creating or restoring mitigation wetlands before filling the original wetland in; choosing wetland restoration over creation; and designing and constructing individual mitigation sites to maximize the likelihood that they will make an ongoing contribution to the watershed.