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Posted 08.24.06


MU Researcher Urges Lawmakers to Protect Wetlands

Wetlands purify and store water, provide wildlife habitat, prevent flooding

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Supreme Court decisions in the past few years have struck blows to federal wetland protection. Some states - in particular Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont and Pennsylvania - have developed their own regulations to protect wetlands, but many states have not. Now researchers like Ray Semlitsch at the University of Missouri-Columbia are becoming more vocal about the need to protect wetlands and biodiversity.

Raymond. Semlitsch."Wetlands are often underappreciated," said Semlitsch, Curators' Professor of Biology in MU's College of Arts and Science. "People think of wetlands as mosquito- and snake-infested wastelands. In reality, wetlands play many important roles, from acting as natural water storage and purification centers to being homes for a great diversity of plants and animals."

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According to a publication by the Environmental Protection Agency, wetlands "clean the water, recharge water supplies, reduce flood risks and provide fish and wildlife habitats. In addition, wetlands provide recreational opportunities, aesthetic benefits, sites for research and education and commercial fishery benefits." Advocates from chapters of the Sierra Club in New York assert that better wetland protection could have protected against recent flooding, and groups in Louisiana argue that destruction of key coastal wetlands contributed to destructive flooding after Hurricane Katrina.

Semlitsch's interest in wetland protection stems from his research of the amphibians that live in wetlands. He recently published an essay in the National Wetlands Newsletter calling for scientists, managers and government regulators to do more to protect wetlands around the nation. Too many leaders, he said, have misconceptions about what is needed to protect animals and plants that use wetlands as natural habitats.

Semlitsch criticized a 2001 Supreme Court decision that limited the Clean Water Act to wetlands that are connected to navigable waterways like streams or rivers. The decision leaves isolated wetlands, which are not connected to waterways, unprotected and endangers the unique animals and plants that live in them. Two Supreme Court decisions this year have further limited protection of wetlands.

"Isolated wetlands are important because they're home to certain types of biodiversity not found elsewhere, even in other types of wetlands," Semlitsch said. "Animals that use isolated wetlands - and wetlands in general - need to be protected. My research has shown that salamanders, for example, use wetlands and about 218 meters of land (greater than two football fields) around wetlands as part of their habitat. If their habitat is destroyed, the salamanders will be at risk. Those salamanders are important because they act as vectors for transporting nutrients from wetlands to the land around them. Unfortunately, if wetlands are polluted, they can also transport toxins from wetlands to land."

Other researchers around the nation, including Whit Gibbons, professor of ecology at the University of Georgia and Joy Zedler, Aldo Leopold Chair of Restoration Ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, also advocate stronger wetland protection. Zedler recently wrote an op-ed piece published in The Capital Times about the problems that Madison, Wisc., area developments pose for wetlands.

"Natural wetlands are extremely complex ecosystems that are highly vulnerable to human impacts and very difficult to replace in total," she wrote. "More homes mean more cars; more energy use; more effluent in the air; more power lines; more non-native plants that could escape gardens and invade conservation areas; more non-native animals, including cats that prey on wetland birds and eggs; more runoff from rooftops, streams and sidewalks; warmer surface water that facilitates growth of Wisconsin's worst wetland weed, reed canary grass; and the most conspicuous impact: loss of open space."

Efforts to protect wetlands often collide with developers' desires to build new housing, roads or shopping centers. Semlitsch said that a balance needs to be found so that wetlands are protected but sustainable development can continue.

"Someone opposed to this would say that we're advocating 'limitless' boundaries around wetlands and that it's not possible to protect everything," Semlitsch said. "This is not the case. We need to protect wetlands because they're essential sources of biodiversity and because they provide important benefits to us. I often hear scientists, managers and regulators ignore obvious ecological connections and discuss wetlands as if they're islands amidst seeming invisible surroundings. We need to take the water-land connection into account and find a good balance to protecting biodiversity."



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