January 18 , 2005

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Wetlands exist all over the United States. They are literally "wet lands," at least for part of each year. Marshes, bogs, swamps, pond and lake margins are wet most of the year. Other wetlands-such as prairie potholes and desert seeps-are wet only part of the year. Wetlands can be fresh water, salt water, or a mix (called brackish). Most of the wetlands in the Rocky Mountain region are fresh water, and many of them dry up each year. Whether permanent or seasonal, wetlands provide valuable habitat for insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and some fish and mammals. Because of their abundant animal life, wetlands also attract scientists, hunters, birders, artists, and other people who appreciate natural places.


Our positive attitude about wetlands has developed mostly in the last half of the twentieth century. Prior to that time, many people in the United States considered wetlands to be dangerous, dark, damp horrible places full of snakes that can kill you and mosquitoes that will spread diseases. Think of the name of a big wetland in southern Virginia: The Great Dismal Swamp. Today this is a National Wildlife Refuge revered by birders and botanists as a haven for wildlife and wild flora. But in the 1700s, it was described as "a horrible desert, the foul damps ascend without ceasing, corrupt the air and render it unfit for respiration." With attitudes like this, it's no wonder that Americans-like many people around the world-dredged, drained, and filled in as many wetlands as we could. We made these lands into farms, pastures, towns, and cities. Today, when you walk many of the streets of major cities such as Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., you are walking upon filled-in wetlands.


Native people of the Americas did not share this view of wetlands. Archeological evidence indicates that Mayans built raised fields in wetlands of Central America; the water would seep up into the raised beds to moisten the crops. The Anishinabe (the tribe's preferred name, instead of Chippewa or Ojibway) live in a land of water, in and around Lake Superior and the other Great Lakes. They gather food of the wetlands, such as cranberries, and every fall they harvest wild rice, which can grow only in healthy, clean wetlands. People began occupying the Columbia River Basin of Idaho and Washington more than 12,000 years ago. Ancestors of the Nez Perce traveled to the Palouse region where they harvested camas bulbs that grow in seasonal wetlands of this fertile grassland. The Nez Perce and many other tribes continued this migration; even today they will travel to the camas meadows of the Columbia Basin for this staple. The Coeur d'Alene tribe consider the water potato so important that they celebrate it in a tribal holiday. Native people harvested other wetlands plants such as alder, lovage, and horsetail. (See box on previous page.) They also hunted animals of the wetlands, such as ducks and beaver.

Bountiful Wetlands

This small tree grows along streams and lakes.l Provides a red dye for paints, cloth, and hair. Tea from the bark used medicinally.

Source of wood for arrows, tipi stakes, and other tools. Berries sour but edible; favored by wildlife.

Herb whose root is chewed and otherwise used for sore throats, coughs, colds, and earaches. The nez Perce traded lovage to the Crow

Burned as a purifying incense and worn as decoration.

Prepare as a tea fror blader problems; use stems like sandpaper or scour pad

Sweet roots eaten raw or boiled.

Roots boiled or baked, or dried for future use. Considered the most important staple for many tribes in the Northwest.

As people learn more about wetlands ... attitudes are changing towards wetlands.

What is a Wetland? | Where are all the Wetlands? |
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