Swamped: How America Achieved No Net Loss

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Environmental policy makers routinely decry the dramatic loss of Americaís wetlands. Yet over the last decade the convergence of two little known wetland trends has resulted in the achievement of the stated national goal of ìno net lossî of wetlands. Indeed, the goal has not only been met, but exceeded. Wetland loss due to agricultural conversion, formerly the number one source of wetland loss, has slowed to a trickle. Also, wetland restoration has exploded in the last decade – what was once a few thousand experimental acres nationwide has become hundreds of thousands of acres a year. When it comes to restored wetlands, the nation is veritably swamped.

As part of the most recent National Resources Inventory (NRI), the U.S. Department of Agricultureís Natural Resource and Conservation Service surveyed wetlands across the country to document their status and trends.

+ According to the NRI, the annual gross loss of wetlands between the 1982 and 1992 period was 56,000 acres a year.

+ Average annual agricultural losses were 31,000 acres per year, urban losses were 89,000 acres per year and other losses were 37,000 acres per year. The authors of the NRI wetlands survey point out that by the end of the period agricultural losses had likely slowed to an estimated 15,000 acres per year.

+  If these trends hold steady, it is probable that the U.S. as a whole lost roughly 141,000 acres of wetlands in 1995.

Beginning in the mid-1980s, the federal government began several non-regulatory programs designed to restore wetlands. Wetland restoration is defined as the reestablishment of wetland hydrology and wetland vegetation to lands which had previously been drained, typically for agricultural purposes. Wetland restoration is distinct from both creation: building a wetland where none has ever existed and enhancement (improving the functioning of an existing wetland). The first programs to begin wide scale restoration were the North American Waterfowl Management Plan and the Partners For Wildlife Program, both operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In the early 1990s the Department of Agriculture began restoring wetlands under the wetland reserve program. In 1995:

+  The Partners For Wildlife Program restored 48,000 acres,

+  The North American Waterfowl Management Plan restored 42,000 acres, and

+  The Wetland Reserve Program enrolled 118,000 acres.

In some cases, not all enrolled or reported acres are returned to wetland status. For example, approximately ten percent of the acres enrolled in the Wetland Reserve Program remain as buffer uplands. Taking into account this small percentage of enrolled uplands, these three wetland programs restored at least 187,000 acres of wetlands, well in excess of the 141,000 acres of wetland converted to other uses every year.

Given the current success of wetland restoration programs and the decline of wetland losses, there is little doubt the nation as a whole has exceeded its expectation of “no net loss.” In addition, wetland restoration programs appear to be a more cost-effective method of conserving wetlands than regulatory programs.

Additionally, given the failure of the 404 program there is no logical public policy reason for the federal government to continue to fund the Army Corps of Engineers wetlands program. Reallocating funds from the Corps regulatory program to non-regulatory programs such as the North American Waterfowl Management Plan or the Wetlands Reserve Program would likely result in an increase in both wetland acreage and wetland function and value.