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. 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.
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. Primarily through the work of NRCS in their Wetland Conservation Provisions and the Wetland Reserve Program, non-tidal wetland acres within the U.S. have actually increased in recent years—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.
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.
For more information about how to access the functions and values of wetlands, visit: Wetland Assessment.
Wetland Reserve Program
The Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) is designed to provide a financial incentive to private landowners to encourage the restoration of wetlands previously drained. This very popular program has enrolled approximately 2.5 million acres since it was created in 1994.
Most of this acreage has been enrolled in the permanent easement option, where 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.