January 18 , 2005

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From farmers to power-brokers, now many people appreciate wetlands. Science has led this attitude adjustment.

Since the mid twentieth century, biologists, hydrologists, geologists, and other scientists have been studying wetlands to understand how they function, and what they contribute to ecosystems, and to human health and economy.

For example, wetlands act like giant sponges, absorbing water during floods and storms. This water, instead of washing downstream and loading water with sediment, instead slowly soaks into the ground to recharge aquifers and other sources of ground water. As water collects in wetlands, this ecosystem cleans the water. Sediments settle out as the water slows; the soil particles bind with pollutants, and some plants absorb the toxins.

Wetlands also absorb nutrients and toxins that otherwise would wash into our lakes, rivers, and coastal waters. Some communities use this natural cleansing ability of wetlands to treat the waste water and sewage that we produce.

Such treatment occurs in urban areas of Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, plus smaller communities such as Moscow, Idaho.

Wetlands also provide many products and foods that we use.

Hunters flock to wetlands each year to hunt ducks, geese, and other waterfowl.

Timber companies harvest trees from the swamps and wet forests of the southeastern United States.

In some wetlands, dense layers of rich organic material form as vegetation dies and is compressed. Called peat, this resource is mined to provide a soil conditioner for gardens and to provide fuel.

Wetlands also serve as nurseries, cafeterias, and homes for fish and other aquatic species that we humans love to eat. Studies estimate that wetlands provide habitat at some point for at least two-thirds of the fish caught and sold in the United States. We also collect foods that grow in wetlands, such as wild rice, blueberries, cranberries, mint, and onions.

Economists consider all of these uses when they estimate the value of wetlands. One small Massachusetts wetland has been valued at $200,000; one acre of Louisiana coastal wetland might generate $80,000 in fish and other resources.

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