Wetlands are a home to many species of migratory and resident birds, reptiles and amphibians, fish, insects, and plants. They also benefit society by storing floodwaters, filtering pollutants, serving as a carbon sink, and providing recreation sites for boating and fishing, just to name a few. There are three major groups of wetlands: marine, tidal, and non-tidal. Marine wetlands occur in coastal shallows. Tidal wetlands also occur in coastal areas but inland from the ocean. These are often referred to as estuaries and are affected by tides. Non-tidal wetlands occur inland and are not subject to tidal influences. These account for 94% of all the wetlands in the United States. Some examples of non-tidal wetlands are Prairie Potholes, Peat Bogs, Fens, Playas, Mountain Meadows, and Riverine wetlands on floodplains. Sometimes these non-tidal wetlands are called “upland wetlands”, “fresh water wetlands”, or “inland wetlands” to designate them as occurring in areas not influenced directly by coastal waters.
By 1984, over half (54%) of all the wetlands in the U.S. had been drained or filled for development or agriculture. Congress responded to these alarming figures by passing two critical wetland conservation and restoration Federal programs administered by NRCS to slow or reverse these alarming trends. These two programs are the Wetland Conservation Provisions (WC) which was authorized in the 1985 Farm Bill, and the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) which was later authorized in the 1990 Farm Bill. Enactment of the 1985 Farm Bill dramatically reduced agricultural impacts when compared to pre-1985 wetland impacts. Through these two programs, NRCS works with farmers and ranchers to maintain or increase important wetland benefits, while ensuring their ability to continue to produce food and fiber.
For more information on wetland types, and wetland gains and losses visit the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Wetland Status and Trends reports.
Legal Protections of Wetlands: The first legal protection of wetlands came from President Jimmy Carter in 1977. He signed Executive Order 11990 into law requiring Federal government agencies to take steps to avoid impacts to wetland when possible. Then, in 1989 President George H. W. Bush established the National policy of “no-net loss of wetlands”. This set the groundwork to replace each newly impacted wetland with a replacement wetland of the same size and with similar wetland functions and values. No-net-loss does not mean no-loss. Wetlands may still be impacted, but those impacts must be replaced by additional wetlands. Primarily through the work of NRCS in our Wetland Conservation Provisions and the wetland portions of the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) (formerly the Wetland Reserve Program 1990 – 2014), non-tidal wetland acres within the U.S. have actually increased in recent years (Figure 4). For example, about 250,000 acres of forested wetlands were created between 1998 and 2004, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It was on Earth Day, 2004, that President George W. Bush announced that “no-net loss” had been accomplished nationally and that we had a net-gain of wetlands: more wetlands had been restored or created than were being destroyed in the U.S. He also announced a new policy beyond “no-net loss”. That goal was to establish 3 million more acres of wetlands beyond those being lost.
Today, natural wetlands are still being lost, but at a much slower rate than in the past. And those that are lost are compensated for through the development of other wetlands; a process called wetland mitigation.
To read Executive Order 11990, view: http://water.epa.gov/lawsregs/guidance/wetlands/eo11990.cfm
Wetland Definition: Wetlands are defined differently by different people and different government agencies; but there are three factors of commonality in these various definitions. Wetlands can be defined by having wetland vegetation (hydrophytes); hydric soils, and wetland hydrology. As used by the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), “wetland” is defined in regulations, 16 U.S.C. Section 3801(a)(27) : “as land that has –
- Has a predominance of hydric soils
- Is inundated or saturated by surface or groundwater at a frequency and duration sufficient to support a prevalence of hydrophytic vegetation typically adapted for life in saturated soil conditions
- Under normal circumstances supports a prevalence of such vegetation. For the purposes of FSA [Food Security Act] and any other Act, this term does not include lands in Alaska as identified as having high potential for agricultural development that have a predominance of permafrost soils”.
Wetland Conservation Provisions
The Wetland Conservation (WC) provisions, commonly referred to as Swampbuster, prohibit USDA program participants from converting remaining wetlands on their agricultural operations to cropland, pasture, or hay land unless the wetland acres, functions, and values are compensated for through wetland mitigation. USDA program participants must certify annually that they are in compliance with the WC provisions. The WC provisions are the only law that affords protection to many remaining wetland types.
NRCS provides assistance to USDA program participants by identifying wetlands that are subject to the WC provisions and to respond to potential issues of non-compliance. If it is determined that a wetland has been converted, then NRCS works with the farmer or rancher to regain eligibility by developing a wetland restoration plan or compensatory mitigation plan.
To gain general information about the Wetland Conservation provisions, visit: http://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?tpl=/ecfrbrowse/Title07/7cfr12_main_02.tpl
To learn more about how to identify wetlands, visit: http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/national/water/wetlands/boundaries
To learn more about how to access the functions and values of wetlands, visit: http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/national/water/wetlands/assess/
Agricultural Conservation Easement Program Wetland Reserve Easements
With the authorization of the 2014 Farm Bill, Wetlands Reserve Easements replaced the Wetland Reserve Program (WRP). Similar to WRP, Wetland Reserve Easements are designed to provide a financial incentive to private landowners to encourage the restoration of wetlands previously degraded and/or drained. The WRP and Wetland Reserve Easements has been a very popular program. It has enrolled approximately 2.6 million acres since the inception of WRP in 1990.
Most of this acreage has been enrolled in the permanent easement option; NRCS pays a per-acre easement fee, plus 100 percent of the cost to restore the agricultural lands back to natural wetland ecosystems. The landowner retains title, control of access, and hunting rights, but must protect the restored wetland ecosystem for future generations. The landowner can sell the land, but the easement (and protections) remain enforce for perpetuity.
For more information about ACEP and Wetland Reserve Easements
To learn more about restoring wetlands