Institute for Wetland & Environmental Education & Research

Wetland Primer
How Are Wetlands Being Protected?

Wetland protection efforts include acquisition, regulation, and restoration. In addition, public education plays a big role in making people aware of the values of wetlands and their need for protection.

The government and private organizations have been acquiring wetlands to protect them from development and provide publically accessible places for nature appreciation. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages the National Wildlife Refuge System which contains mainly large wetland complexes important for migratory waterfowl. National Parks also possess numerous wetlands within their borders as do certain National Forests, and numerous state parks, forests, and wildlife management areas, county parks, and private nature sanctuaries and preserves (especially in states with an abundance of wetlands). While acquisition provides a significant level of protection, these wetlands may still be subjected to adverse impacts from degraded water quality and poor land use practices adjacent to them.

The federal government and many states have passed laws that provide significant protection for many wetlands. At the federal level, the Clean Water Act is the major law that accomplishes this through requiring permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for proposed wetland alterations. Regulations for administering this law change frequently, so the level of "protection" or regulation waxes and wanes. Overall, however, today's federal wetland regulations offer far more wetland protection than they did in the 1970s and 1980s. States actually began regulating wetlands before the federal government. Massachusetts passed laws to protect coastal and freshwater wetlands in the mid-1960s and many eastern coastal states enacted similar legislation in the 1970s and 1980s. These state laws tend to be more restrictive than the federal regulations.

In the 1990s, the federal government and some states initiated wetland restoration programs. These programs seek to restore former wetlands (e.g., effectively drained areas no longer functioning as wetlands or filled sites) and rehabilitate existing wetlands that are significantly impaired (hydrologically modified). These programs either increase wetland acreage (restoration) or improve the quality of existing wetlands (rehabilitation). In some cases, wetlands are purposefully changed from one type to another to promote a particular function (such as by diking a wet meadow to create a marsh-pond complex). This type of work is considered wetland enhancement. It may increase wetland acreage depending on the effect of the dike in impounding water, but usually results in a change in type. In other cases, wetlands may be created where none previously existed. This is called wetland creation or wetland establishment. Beaver are well-known for their ability to create wetlands by damming streams and flooding low-lying areas.

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