Discovering the Unknown Landscape: A History Of America's Wetlands

Discovering the Unknown Landscape: A History Of America's Wetlands

by Ann Vileisis

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The rapidly disappearing wetlands that once spread so abundantly across the American continent serve an essential and irreplaceable ecological function. Yet for centuries, beginning with the first European settlers, Americans have viewed them with disdain. As neither dry land, which can be owned and controlled by individuals, nor bodies of water, which are considered… See more details below


The rapidly disappearing wetlands that once spread so abundantly across the American continent serve an essential and irreplaceable ecological function. Yet for centuries, beginning with the first European settlers, Americans have viewed them with disdain. As neither dry land, which can be owned and controlled by individuals, nor bodies of water, which are considered a public resource, wetlands have in recent years been at the center of controversy over issues of environmental protection and property rights.
The confusion and contention that surround wetland issues today are the products of a long and convoluted history. In Discovering the Unknown Landscape, Anne Vileisis presents a fascinating look at that history, exploring how Americans have thought about and used wetlands from Colonial times through the present day. She discusses the many factors that influence patterns of land use—ideology, economics, law, perception, art—and examines the complicated interactions among those factors that have resulted in our contemporary landscape. As well as chronicling the march of destruction, she considers our seemingly contradictory tradition of appreciating wetlands: artistic and literary representations, conservation during the Progressive Era, and recent legislation aimed at slowing or stopping losses.
Discovering the Unknown Landscape is an intriguing synthesis of social and environmental history, and a valuable examination of how cultural attitudes shape the physical world that surrounds us. It provides important context to current debates, and clearly illustrates the stark contrast between centuries of beliefs and policies and recent attempts to turn those longstanding beliefs and policies around. Vileisis's clear and engaging prose provides a new and compelling understanding of modern-day environmental conflicts.

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Discovering the Unknown Landscape

A History Of America's Wetlands

By Ann Vileisis


Copyright © 1997 Ann Vileisis
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61091-264-8


A Landscape on the Periphery

That man is, in fact, only a member of a biotic community is shown by an ecological interpretation of history. Many historical events, hitherto explained solely in terms of human enterprise, were actually biotic interactions between people and the land. The characteristics of the land determined the facts quite as potently as the chararteristics of the men who lived on it.

—Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

A salt marsh lay behind my grandmother's beach house, but I never ventured to play in its golden grasses. Somehow, as a child, I already knew the muddy terrain was taboo. I sat on a warm black rock near the gentle surf of Long Island Sound and peered up the glimmering creek that flowed from the marsh. That's as close as I got.

Twelve years later, a college field trip took me to another wetland near the Connecticut coast. Crossing a highway bridge just out of town, we saw our destination: an expanse of reeds and cattails stretching along the Quinnipiac River, bounded by an industrial park on one end and a shipyard at the other. We abandoned our van in the shadow of six squat oil tanks and pulled on thick rubber boots. I didn't know what to expect when I took my first step. Would my feet sink into stinking black muck? The wetland mystified me.

Following the lead of our ecology professor, Tom Siccama, I separated the tall reeds with my outstretched arms and entered the marsh. With that first step, my boot crunched brittle stalks. I didn't get stuck in the mud at all. An earthy spring smell emanated from the rich soil and filled the breezy air. Startling us with their commotion, a pair of blue-winged teal flew from their protected refuge.

Our clas plodded farther into the marsh to discover its inner workings. We examined the stalks and roots of the cattails and searched for signs of muskrats and birds. Digging a pit to investigate the soil, students by chance unearthed axe-hewn stakes that once supported hayricks, the frames used long ago for drying marsh grasses into hay. But now the grasses were gone. When bridges near the river's mouth were built, Tom explained, much of the marsh was filled in. Without the regular pulse of saltwater, cattails and reeds outcompeted the marsh grasses that had once thrived. I could see that the reeds' aggressive roots spread in rhizomatous networks, creating a thick, woven floor. Our wetland was typical of many on the eastern seaboard, where the construction of harbors, roads, and bridges had altered the ecology of salt marshes. Although cattails provide less nutritious food than the grasses they replaced, their dense stands still shelter waterfowl and wildlife. As the cattails and reeds draw water for their own biological processes, they also absorb excess nutrients and filter pollutants, helping to preserve the water quality of the urban harbor. Though changed and degraded, the brackish wetland still serves important ecological and hydrological functions.

When my classmates headed back to the van, I lingered for a while, engulfed by marsh. When the wind blew, the reeds rustled and bent in synchrony. I saw only clear sky fringed by the tassels of the swaying reeds. The landscape I'd always avoided turned out to be a veritable sanctuary, not only for ducks but for me too. Here on the city's edge, I found a place apart, full of the beauty and wild intricacies of nature.

Even though a quarter million city dwellers lived nearby, almost no one noticed the marsh. After learning more about the history of wetlands, I am not surprised. Since colonial settlement, Euro-Americans have generally avoided wetlands. These landscapes have been little explored, little known, and little understood. They boast far fewer poets and champions than other more familiar terrains, such as forests, meadows, and seashores. Consequently, most Americans have held incomplete or mistaken perceptions of these places. Wetlands have long been a landscape on the periphery.

If people didn't shun swamps and marshes, they remade them into different landscapes. Before industrial parks, oil tanks, warehouses, and docks girded the Quinnipiac, its mouth formed a large coastal estuary supporting abundant fisheries. The small piece I ventured into remains as a fragment mirroring the far richer wetland ecosystem that once existed. Throughout Connecticut, people have drained over 50 percent of the original wetlands, including swamps, peat bogs, and salt marshes, for cities, suburbs, and farms. Other states have suffered similar or greater losses. Louisiana has lost half of its native forested bottomlands. In the northern plains states, farmers Scientists estimate that 53 percent of wetlands in the continental United States have been lost either to agriculture or development. With the loss of these ecosystems, there have been many consequences including increased flooding, degraded water quality, and the destruction of habitat for fish, birds, and wildlife. Not until the twentieth century did Americans begin to recognize the important natural values of wetlands. (Courtesy National Wetlands Inventory) have converted 60 to 70 percent of prairie pothole wetlands into farmlands. In Iowa, a state we rarely think of as wet, vast marshes once existed, but 89 percent of them have been drained for cultivation. Ninety-one percent of California wetlands, including much of the San Francisco Bay estuary and the once vast tule marshes of the Central Valley, are gone. Overall, 221 million acres of wetlands once graced our nation's lower forty-eight states with a rich mosaic of life. More than half of these important landscapes no longer exist. And plunging acreage estimates don't address widespread deterioration of ecological functions in the wetlands that remain.

The sweeping transformation of wetlands has occurred over the course of almost four centuries, much of it happening before people recognized the values that these landscapes offer. Only in the past thirty to forty years have scientists learned that destruction of wetlands undermines natural hydrologic processes, many of them fundamental to people's lives and economy. By retarding runoff and allowing water to seep back into the ground, many wetlands have played a critical role in recharging the aquifers that people rely on for agricultural and domestic water supplies. With their spongelike capacities, wetlands have absorbed and stored water, providing natural flood control along many rivers. Wetlands have also preserved water quality by filtering excess nutrients and pollutants. But clearing, drainage, and development have compromised these services, resulting in the "need" for costly dams, levees, and water treatment plants.

With the loss and degradation of wetland ecosystems, the insects, fish, birds, animals, and plants that depend on these rich landscapes have suffered grim consequences. As development has swallowed coastal salt marshes and estuaries, fish and shellfish populations have plummeted, ruining valuable commercial fisheries. Drainage of the prairie potholes, regarded as the most productive breeding grounds for ducks and geese world-wide, has decimated waterfowl populations that less than two centuries ago were said to "blacken" the skies. Remaining wetlands still provide critical habitat for 150 bird and 200 fish species, including an estimated one-third of the nation's threatened or endangered plants and animals. And only in the past decade have scientists come to realize that wetlands help to preserve the biodiversity essential to our planet's well-being.

Though significant protection efforts began in the 1960s, wetlands have continued to disappear at a staggering rate. As recently as 1990, eight hundred acres—equivalent to six hundred football fields—were lost on average each day.

The ongoing destruction of wetlands has posed fundamental conflicts for our country. Despite the preponderance of scientific evidence indicating the need to preserve wetlands, efforts at regulation and conservation have been riddled by delays, misunderstandings, loopholes, and discord. As such, wetlands have become the most controversial landscape in America.

The confusion and contention surrounding wetlands did not erupt suddenly but are the products of a long and convoluted history. Americans have an abiding tradition of turning wetlands into farms and cities, yet we also have a lesser-known tradition of appreciating the many natural qualities of wetlands. Some readers may be surprised to learn that the origins of our current conflict over wetland values lie much deeper than the environmental regulatory politics of the recent decades. Only by delving further into this history can we know the very sources of our conflicting beliefs. And only by reevaluating those beliefs can we find a workable vision for the next century.

Several important themes thread this four-hundred-year story. Perhaps the most colorful strand is the way that cultural attitudes have shaped our society's understanding of wetlands and, consequently, our treatment of them. Over time, these attitudes have generally shifted from negative to positive—especially with the advent of new scientific information. But some attitudes have not changed.

The most revealing theme of this story is how Americans have long regarded wetlands as private property just like all other land. Without a clear hydrologic and ecologic understanding of these lands, early settlers saw no reason to treat them any differently. Following in their footsteps, generations of Americans have continued to misunderstand the essentially liquid nature of wetland landscapes. Although on the surface some wetlands (in the dry season) may look like any other parcel of land, they are connected to subterranean aquifers, rivers, and lakes, and, therefore, they are markedly different. If a wetland is altered, consequences reverberate throughout the watershed. For example, if a wetland is drained or filled, more runoff will flow downstream, and neighbors' basements may flood. Even beyond the watershed, there may be fewer ducks.

The Lockean tenets of labor and land ownership on which American concepts of property are based failed to account for variances in the nature of land and certainly did not account for water. Traditionally, land has been considered as private property and water as public property. Because wetlands are not only land but land and water, regarding them simply as real property with no other consideration has been a fundamental error in paradigm. This error long misled citizens attempting to drain wetlands and continues to mislead those who seek to conserve wetlands without violating traditional property rights.

The tricky matter is that although by customary law a citizen may survey and purchase a parcel of wetland and consider it private property, the very wetness of wetlands means that there will always be a "commons" component to them. This commons may be a public nuisance, or it may be a public good. For example, when settlers along the Mississippi River struggled against massive floods, they realized that they had to work in concert to reap the benefits of their properties. It was impossible for an individual landowner to build a single segment of levee or to drain a small parcel of swamp successfully. As engineer Arthur Morgan explained in 1910, "Many of the large drainage basins are intricately connected by overflow channels, or by large swamp areas which have served as storage reservoirs for the waters of several streams, and an effort to reclaim a small part of one of the large basins has frequently resulted in damage to some other portion, or has failed to accomplish its purpose because the small area could not be isolated for treatment." In this historical instance, the wetland commonage created a public nuisance that ultimately had to be dealt with in a public manner, first by the state levee board and then by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In the past, common problems posed by wetlands generated the most attention, but now the public benefits accorded by wetlands draw the most concern. Although the ways that we've understood the "commonness" of wetlands has changed through history, our response has nonetheless remained tied to the watery nature of these lands.

A third theme of this story is that citizens have long looked to government for help with clarifying individual rights and responsibilities pertaining to wetlands. By their very nature, wetlands have challenged private ownership and generated confusion because many are linked to larger hydrological systems that transcend property lines and even state boundaries. To resolve such confusion, throughout history citizens have demanded that local, state, and federal governments become involved to protect against common nuisances and to preserve common values. For example, nineteenth-century farmers supported state ditch laws to prevent haphazard drainage and flooding. Over a century later, to avert a "tragedy of the commons," whereby the destruction of privately owned wetlands would degrade water quality for all, environmentalists pushed for laws to protect these landscapes. A larger-scale vision, in terms of both geography and purpose, has often been needed to both develop and conserve wetlands. These themes—the role of cultural attitudes, the misunderstanding of wetlands' watery nature, and the waxing involvement of government—emerge again and again in this history.

What we can now look at as a dramatic transformation of the American landscape—the loss of over half the wetlands in the continental United States—took place in increments. The change was slow at first and then picked up pace as the prospering economy, innovations, and new laws made converting natural wetlands to other landscapes easier. For centuries, the conviction that natural swamps and marshes were worthless and troublesome went hand in hand with people's actions and government policies: citizens drained swamps, and government land grants and subsidies encouraged even more drainage.

With the striking transformation of these landscapes came a slow change in attitudes toward wetlands. By the 1860s, naturalists and influential Romantic thinkers and artists recognized that the unique beauty of the nation lay in its disappearing natural features. Their art and writing helped to inspire general appreciation and study of nature among literate Americans. Beyond naturalists, artists, and writers, late-nineteenth-century sport hunters secured the most significant attention for swamps and marshes by noticing that waterfowl populations—dependent on wetlands for nesting and breeding—were declining. National interest in migratory birds led to federal protection of wetlands for the first time.

Not until scientists learned more about the critical importance of wetland ecosystems as habitat for waterfowl, fish, and wildlife did an ecological ideology emerge and a new understanding of wetlands grow in the scientific community. In the 1950s, ecologists coined the term wetland to replace the imprecise and value-laden swamp. Despite scientific knowledge, rampant development following World War II resulted in a blitz of wetlands destruction. All in all, between the mid 1950s and the mid 1970s, 11 million wetland acres were converted to shopping centers, airports, farms, suburbs, and other uses. When citizens recognized the consequences of this massive wetland transformation in their own communities, they began to organize to restore and protect those landscapes. In response to the growing grassroots environmental movement, several states passed wetland statutes to maintain open space, wildlife habitat, water quality, and flood protection. Citizen concern for environmental quality also spread to Congress, which enacted the Clean Water Act and other laws that benefited wetlands in the early 1970s.

Despite the growing awareness about the values of wetland ecosystems, a traditional and powerful bias favoring agriculture and development persisted in both the institutions and the language of government and politics. While the Fish and Wildlife Service protected wetland remnants as refuges, other federal agencies proceeded to destroy them. When swamps stood in the way of canal projects, the Army Corps of Engineers drained and leveed them. When prairie potholes lay in the way of maximum crop yields, the Department of Agriculture encouraged drainage through subsidy payments. Not until 1975 did a citizen lawsuit compel the Corps to extend Clean Water Act protection to wetlands. And not until 1985 did Congress finally strike from the law federal incentives to drain wetlands for croplands. In the early 1990s, when the Bush administration and then Congress tried to change the legal definition of wetlands, potentially removing thousands of acres from federal protection, it became evident that a universal understanding of wetland ecosystems and their values still did not exist.


Excerpted from Discovering the Unknown Landscape by Ann Vileisis. Copyright © 1997 Ann Vileisis. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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