Wetlands are the “memory” of the landscape. When they are lost, so are our stories.
‘The Understory’, an audio field trip, takes us to the Croatan National Forest to experience these special places
This appears to be an isolated wetland in the Croatan National Forest. Currents and ripples forming on the surface indicate that is connected to another waterway, such as a spring, underground. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)
Also check out a new feature, “The Understory,” an audio field trip that explores important places and environmental issues in North Carolina. In this episode, we visit the Croatan National Forest to see various types of wetlands, including those that are at highest risk of being harmed or eliminated altogether. Our guides are Samantha Krop, the Neuse Riverkeeper, and David Lekson, a wetlands specialist who retired from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Croatan is always an adventure: We saw a venomous snake, clams and recent evidence of bears.
The water stood nearly still, except for the damsel flies that touched down like seaplanes. It looked as black as Darjeeling tea, stained by tannins in the plants that had been steeping for decades.
These are Pocosin wetlands, found in eastern North Carolina, where the soil is acidic and sandy, and full of carbon-rich peat.
Wetlands serve as part sponge, part Brita filter, absorbing and cleaning the water. They provide habitats for birds, animals, insects and aquatic life. They store carbon, preventing it from entering the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas, a major driver of climate change.
But many of these wetlands — 2.5 million acres in North Carolina alone — lost environmental protection earlier this year, the result of a U.S. Supreme Court decision, and subsequently, the state legislature’s passage of the Farm Act. The nation’s high court ruled that “isolated wetlands” don’t meet the legal threshold for regulation under the Clean Water Act. The legislature piled on, ensuring in state law that regulators couldn’t protect an isolated wetland on the sly.
Yet these “isolated wetlands” are often not “isolated” at all. Studies conducted by several scientists, including hydrologists from the NC Department of Environmental Quality, showed that “isolated” wetlands actually connect to other waterbodies. Those connections aren’t necessarily visible because they happen underground. These wetlands might be geographically isolated, but behind the scenes, they’re the life of the party.
NC Newsline spoke with Marcelo Ardón, an assistant professor and wetlands scientist at NC State University, about the importance of geographically isolated wetlands. He calls them the “memory” of the landscape because they store water, carbon, plants — and even historical artifacts — for such a long time.
We asked several other organizations for interviews about the impacts of the loss of wetlands protections but they declined: the Davey Resource Group, a mitigation banker that restores areas to offset legal environmental damage elsewhere; a consultant group that advises companies on wetlands impacts, which did not respond to our inquiry; and DEQ, which, through a spokesman, said it is still reviewing the ramifications of the federal and state actions.
You can also listen to this interview.
NC Newsline: Professor Ardón, why should we care about wetlands?
Wetlands provide lots of benefits. They’re very good at capturing water and releasing it slowly over times. They’re good for flood prevention; they also help clean the water.
There’s only certain plant species that tend to be able to grow in these kinds of systems. Some are unique and ones that we’re very proud of in North Carolina, like the pitcher plants and those insectivorous plants that usually grow in the swamps. They’re also important habitats for birds, as well, for migratory birds on the coast. They’re really important for both commercial and recreational fisheries.
Then you have waterlogged conditions that slow down decomposition. That imbalance causes these systems to capture a lot of carbon and store that carbon for a long period of time. And when you accelerate that decomposition, then all that carbon that was being stored in those soils starts being released. And then the systems go from being a carbon sink, they can turn into a carbon source, and they start releasing the carbon.
NC Newsline: And when you release the carbon, that contributes to climate change.
All of these important services are things that are at risk to being lost with this new decision, both at the federal level, and at the state level. Nationally, the U.S has lost at least 50% of the wetlands. When we just look at North Carolina, it might be 50 to 60%, depending on the estimates.
NC Newsline: I’ve heard some people say wetlands are like the kidneys of an ecosystem, is that an accurate comparison?
People often called wetlands the kidneys of the landscape, because they do this thing of cleaning the water. But I also think that we could think of these wetlands as kind of like memories of the landscape, because they can store things for long periods of time.
We have these examples of these bog mummies. They found these mummies that are very, very well preserved. An example of that that’s a little closer to home is that we have found these canoes in like the bottom of some of the lakes and some of the wetlands, as well. And it’s the same thing: Wood gets preserved really, really well, because decomposition tends to be really slow in these systems.
These wetlands have played an important cultural role.They were part of the Underground Railroad. There’s a lot of history in these systems that that we normally don’t appreciate. And the systems historically haven’t been valued, and historically, people that have been marginalized have been pushed to these systems. So I think that there’s a lot of history there that we still don’t know.
And again, we’re at the risk of continuing to lose these systems. We’ll lose some of those stories and some of those memories.
The risk now is that with these decisions of the Supreme Court and losing the protection of these isolated wetlands, is that we’re going to keep losing them.
NC Newsline: Professor Ardón, give us some hope.
We’ve been collaborating with the Nature Conservancy and U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Geological Survey, to restore these systems by raising the water table. And just by raising the water table, what we found is that we slow that accelerated decomposition back down. We reduced those carbon dioxide emissions.
NC Newsline: But can you ever through human intervention really restore them the way that nature intended them to be?
The best study that I’ve seen about that was a meta analysis — kind of like a study of studies — they combined all of these different studies to see what they found. And they found all these different studies that have looked at restored wetlands compared to nearby reference wetlands, to see how much we have we recovered through restoration.
The best-case scenario, you could only recover about 70 to 75% of the services. And this was even after 100 years. That tells you that, to our knowledge, maybe if they had 200 years, maybe they would recover completely. But as of right now, to our knowledge, we can’t fully recover all of those benefits, even after a long period of time. Because of this, we should probably try to avoid losing the systems as much as possible, we should protect what we have, because we’re never able to recover them.
On the other hand, if we can 75%, doing restoration, targeted restoration, then we should definitely try to do it, right? Because even that 70 to 75% back is better than nothing. Restoration can play a role. It’s just that we should never use restoration as an excuse for like, oh, yeah, we can pave this system and just restore something somewhere else. It’s never going to be the same.
- Check out DEQ’s interactive map of public wetlands that you can visit.
- The Carolina Wetlands Association, a nonprofit, science-based advocacy group, offers educational materials online, as well as a volunteer monitoring program.
- Curt Richardson’s lab at Duke University runs a Wetland Center that conducts research and outreach.
- East Carolina University’s Outer Banks campus also operates a research center.
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