Conserving Americas Wetlands 2007:
Three Years of Progress
Implementing the Presidents Goal
Maintaining the Wetland Base
Federal agencies engage in various actions that help maintain the existing base of wetlands. The President's goal helps sharpen focus on these activities. A policy of having an "overall increase" of wetlands must be built on a strong foundation of "no net loss." Key programs that contribute to the base, but that are outside the President's initiative, fall into the following categories:
- Managing wetlands
- Cooperative conservation
- Regulation and mitigation
- Support activities.
Approximately 13 percent of the Nation's current base of wetlands is managed by Federal agencies. Many units of the National Wildlife Refuge System were established for their wetland values, and FWS spends approximately $25 million annually to actively manage more than 1.1 million acres of wetlands. Wetlands management activities include creating desired conditions through the use of canals, levees, water control structures, and pumps. Cyclical water level and management activities-including mechanical disturbance, prescribed burning, or chemical treatment-also are used to produce native wildlife foods in wetlands. Other Federal agencies managing wetlands include the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Bureau of Reclamation, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and Department of Defense. All of these wetlands are being conserved for sustainable benefits.
Seventy-four percent of the land in the United States is privately owned. To better conserve privately owned wetlands, the Federal government relies on voluntary, incentive-based conservation programs. For example, technical and financial assistance provided by the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service help private landowners apply needed conservation techniques on their land. When private landowners use these programs to restore, protect, and improve wetlands on their property, they serve as stewards of our environment. Other cooperative conservation efforts include:
The success of Federal actions to encourage and partner with non-Federal parties-state and local governments, Indian tribes, and nongovernmental entities-increases opportunities to make progress through cooperative endeavors. Recent trends are encouraging. For example, through the Corporate Wetlands Restoration Partnership, over 225 corporate partners and 100 non-Federal partners-including environmental organizations, foundations, and state and local governments-are working with Federal agencies to implement wetlands projects (see http://www.coastalamerica.gov/text/cwrp.html). The number of partnerships is projected to increase in the future. The coordinated use of public-private efforts focusing on priority wetlands opportunities should yield major ecological benefits. Another example of successful public-private partnerships are the FWS Joint Ventures (JVs). Formed to implement the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, they are self-directed partnerships involving Federal, state, and local governments; corporations; and a wide range of nongovernmental conservation organizations. JVs have proven to be successful tools for developing cooperative conservation efforts to protect waterfowl and other bird habitat. JVs address multiple local, regional, and continental goals for sustaining migratory bird populations by developing scientifically based habitat projects that benefit waterfowl and other migratory bird populations.
Most Federal agencies involved with wetlands activities provide Federal, state, and local partners with technical (biological, engineering, hydrological, etc.) expertise to support various development, conservation, and restoration projects across the country. These programs offer technical assistance to help conserve, restore, and protect a variety of fish and wildlife and their habitats. Among the laws providing a foundation for technical assistance and conservation partnerships are the Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act, National Environmental Policy Act, Clean Water Act, Federal Power Act, Estuary Restoration Act, and Environmental Restoration Act.
Regulation and Mitigation
An important aspect of the President's Wetlands Initiative is its continued emphasis on the goal of "no net loss" of wetlands by existing programs that regulate certain activities in wetlands and other waters. Section 404 of the Clean Water Act regulates the discharge of dredged or fill material into waters of the United States, including wetlands, and is jointly administered by the USACE and EPA. The USACE has primary responsibility for day-to-day permitting of activities in jurisdictional "waters of the United States," a broad category of aquatic resources that includes wetlands. A comprehensive permit review requires applicants to first avoid and then minimize impacts, and finally use compensatory mitigation to replace wetland functions lost. Regulated activities under this program include fills for development, water resource projects (such as dams and levees), and infrastructure development (such as highways and airports). During the past three years, more than 270,000 permit applications were processed requiring applicants to avoid impacts to more than 22,000 acres of wetlands, and maintaining a ratio of more than two acres of mitigation for every acre of permitted impacts to wetlands. In addition, the USACE has developed new performance standards that increase the emphasis on field evaluations of mitigation sites. The USACE also is providing field guidance to improve mitigation success through interagency efforts associated with the national Wetlands Mitigation Action Plan, and promulgating a joint rule with EPA that proposes integrating the watershed approach in mitigation planning.
The Wetland Conservation ("Swampbuster") provision established in the 1985 Farm Bill, and amended in the 1990 Farm Bill, requires all agricultural producers to protect the wetlands on the farms they own or operate if they wish to be eligible for certain USDA farm program benefits. Producers are not eligible if they have planted an agricultural commodity on a wetland that was converted by drainage, leveling, or any other means after December 23, 1985, or if they have converted a wetland for the purpose of agricultural commodity production, or for making such production possible, after November 28, 1990. NRCS Conservation Technical Assistance staff make wetland determinations, develop wetlands mitigation and restoration plans, and administer other Swampbuster-related provisions.
Under Federal Aid Highway legislation, state transportation agencies may use national Highway System and Surface Transportation Program funds to finance wetland and natural habitat conservation planning and implementation, as well as compensatory mitigation and restoration projects that offset unavoidable losses from transportation projects. The Department of Transportation (DOT) has a goal of 1«-to-1 wetland acre mitigation; under the Federal Aid Highway Program it has achieved over 49,000 acres of wetland mitigation since 1996, with mitigation exceeding acres impacted by over 31,000 acres. The 2005 Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users requires that metropolitan and statewide plans reflect environmental mitigation and coordination with resource agencies. The Federal Highway Administration also funds research on wetlands mitigation in connection with highways, and wetlands mitigation is an eligible project cost for Federal transit and airport assistance.
The FWS strategically maps the Nation's wetlands and deepwater habitats to gather information on their characteristics, extent, and status and trends through the National Wetlands Inventory (NWI). As part of the President's Wetlands Initiative, the FWS completed an updated national wetlands status and trends report in 2005. The study found that there are about 107.7 million acres of wetlands in the conterminous United States. Between 1998 and 2004, there was an estimated gain in wetlands acreage of 191,750 acres, or about 32,000 acres per year. The net gain in wetlands acreage was attributed to an increase in freshwater ponds, conversion of agricultural lands or former agricultural lands that had been idled, in combination with wetland restorations. Freshwater wetland losses to silviculture and to urban and rural development offset some acreage gains. The report did not document or address changes in wetlands quality. There is additional work to be done to ensure that the Nation's wetlands base is sustained and provides the necessary functions, diversity, and structure to improve the quality of our wetland resources as outlined in the President's 2004 message.
The NRCS conducts the National Resources Inventory (NRI), also a scientifically based statistical survey of the Nation's natural resources that provides updated information on the status, condition, and trends of land, soil, water, and related resources on the Nation's non-Federal land. The NRI is unique in that it is a nationally consistent database constructed specifically to estimate five-, 10-, and 15-year trends for natural resources. The NRI process has reported that between 1997 and 2003 there was an estimated net gain of 263,000 acres of wetlands due to agricultural activities, an average annual increase of 44,000 acres.
The NWI Status and Trends study was designed specifically to sample wetlands and wetland change, whereas the NRI is a landscape characterization of all natural resources, of which wetlands make up one component. The FWS designed its study to develop wetlands trend information for all lands in the conterminous United States, whereas the NRI collects data on non-Federal rural lands.
Monitoring and evaluation
When actions are taken to restore or enhance natural resources or ecosystems, a considerable amount of time may pass before the full effects are evident. For this reason, the responsible Federal agencies monitor the targeted wetlands to measure and track progress. Results from monitoring are useful for evaluating the effectiveness of the actions taken; in some cases, management goals or actions to meet them may be modified. In addition, the Federal Government provides both financial and technical assistance to states and tribes to help them monitor their wetlands conservation work.
Research and education
Federal agencies also are engaged in research to better understand wetlands, wetland plants, and their responses to targeted actions. Among the most prominent programs are the national Wetlands Research Center (USGS), Engineer Research and Development Center (USACE), Plant Materials Centers (NRCS), the Center for Forested Wetlands Research (USFS), and the Office of Research and Development (EPA).