By Michelle Werts

Wetlands in William L. Finley National Wildlife Refuge
Wetlands in William L. Finley National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: George Gentry/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Today is World Wetlands Day. For more than a decade, countries around the world have celebrated wetlands on February 2 in remembrance of the 1971 signing of the Convention of Wetlands in Ramsar, Iran. Why do we celebrate wetlands every year? Where to begin?

Wetlands is the broad term used to describe areas that often find their soil saturated with water and as a result support flora and fauna that need these saturated-soil conditions to survive. While water is often prevalent in wetlands, wetlands aren’t necessarily wet all the time. The most common types of wetlands in the U.S. are marshes, swamps, bogs and fens. Because of their unique wet-dry conditions — which enable them to act as transitions from wet habitats to dry ones — wetlands are essential to maintaining nature’s balance.

  • One acre of wetland can store up to 1.5 million gallons of floodwater.
  • Fifty percent of North America’s birds nest or feed in wetlands.
  • More than 30 percent of America’s plant species call wetlands home.
  • Wetland-dependent species contribute billions to the commercial and recreational fishing industry every year.

That’s just a small glimpse of the benefits of wetlands. Wetlands improve water quality, help with flood protection, control shoreline erosion, provide fish and wildlife habitat and contribute billions in recreation value annually. And we’re losing them.

When the Europeans first arrived in America, more than 220 million acres of the conterminous United States were covered with wetlands. Now, we’re hovering around 110 million acres. Loss was rampant from the 1950s to 70s, mainly due to conversion of wetlands into agricultural fields and other development. While that trend has slowed in recent years thanks to some protection from 1972’s Clean Water Act and 1986’s Emergency Wetlands Resources Act and other restoration and protection efforts, we’re still losing about 10,000 acres of wetland annually.

That’s why many of our Global ReLeaf projects each year are dedicated to restoring wetlands, like our 2011 project at the Wapanocca National Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas. But remember that wetlands aren’t always special reserves or areas: they can be found in every county and every climatic zone in the U.S., according to the EPA. Which means you might be living in or on the edge of a wetland! With heightened awareness around the Clean Water Act because of its 40th birthday and the Farm Bill up for reauthorization in Congress this year, there are going to be many opportunities to step in and make our voices heard on important conservation issues, especially concerning water, wetlands and more, so stay tuned and go celebrate a wetland today.