Today marks the 14th annual celebration of World Wetlands Day. It is telling that the event is only in its 14th year—an acknowledgement of how long it has taken for the critical importance of wetlands to be recognized globally.
Where I live, on Long Island, New York, much of it once fringed with wetlands—many of them now filled in—I’ve witnessed this slow recognition. When I began as a journalist here in the 1960s, there was general ignorance about the important role of wetland. Money was being made in filling in what were considered useless marshes, and there were those in government joining in the profit-making.
As an investigative reporter for the Long Island Press, I exposed how the Suffolk County Department of Public Works utilized a huge dredge to suck up bay bottom and deposit it as fill on wetlands in Southampton Town so they could be used for housing developments. Rudolph Kammerer, then Suffolk public works commissioner, moonlighted as a private engineer on these developments, working with C. Marvin Raynor, president of the Southampton Town Trustees. The trustees have been empowered since colonial times with supervision of the town’s wetlands. Raynor laid out plans for bulkheading that would front the wetlands, making filling possible. And as a trustee, he voted for the dredging, bulkheading and fill depositing.
The articles forced the sale of the county dredge—but the struggle to save Long Island wetlands continued and goes on to this day.
Extensive damage to the wetlands has been done on Long Island by ditches dug by Suffolk County in the name of mosquito control. Further, it has regularly doused the wetlands with toxic pesticides—including DDT—to kill mosquitoes, although marine and bird life die as well.
Just out is a comprehensive book on the variety of life in the wetlands, their importance and the destruction that has been going on: “Tidal Marshes of Long Island, New York. Published by the Torrey Botanical Society, the oldest botanical organization in the western hemisphere, it is full of fascinating essays, vivid color photos, maps and charts.
The book is edited by Dr. John Potente who as a member of the Suffolk County Council on Environmental Quality fought against the county’s damaging undertakings in the wetlands. He resigned from the council in 2007 in protest to these activities, joined by environmental attorney Lauren Stiles and members representing Riverhead and Southold Towns.
Dr. Potente contributes a chapter in the new book along with 17 others including Philip Weinberg who as head of the New York State Attorney General’s Environmental Protection Bureau in the 1970s pioneered legal protection for Long Island wetlands; Larry Penny, East Hampton Town’s director of natural resources; Professor Christopher Gobler of the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University; and Matthew Atkinson, former general counsel for Peconic Baykeeper.
“Long Island’s salt marshes,” writes Dr. Potente, “play an important ecological role as nursery grounds for finfish, shellfish and marine plankton, as well as providing a buffer against ocean storms.” But he points out that “half of the marshes that originally existed in the northeastern United States have been lost, and the remaining marshes have been significantly altered.”
He speaks of the “filling of marshlands with trash and concrete [and] the development of waterfront property” as major causes of wetlands destruction. And then there are the impacts of pollution: “ And he elaborates on how “linear ditches were dug out of pristine marshlands” and Long Island wetlands were “saturated with DDT” and other poisonous pesticides.
“Today, reducing human impacts on our salt marshes is imperative because so much marshland already has been irretrievably lost,” declares Dr. Potente. “Only after acquiring a general respect for the inherent complexity of the salt marsh can humans begin to withdraw their need to interfere.”
Penny in his chapter—titled “Healing Salt Marshes from the Scars of Mosquito Ditches”—writes: “Despite the laments of Rachel Carson and a handful of conservationists, before the mid-1960s salt marshes had a reputation rivaling that of weed patches…Across Long Island, in a span of less than 15 postwar years, a quarter of the salt marshes, especially those along the South Shore bays, were filled over.”
The chapter by Weinberg, who went on to be a professor at St. John’s University School of Law, centers on the 1973 passage of the Long Island Wetlands Law—over the intense opposition of Long Island development interests. He writes: “Long Island’s and the state’s wetlands remain vital and irreplaceable resources” and “their continued survival depends on sufficient resources, and penalties, being deployed to protect them.”
Says Dale Humburg, chief biologist of Ducks Unlimited, the main sponsor of World Wetlands Day: “Wetlands are some of nature’s most productive and biologically diverse ecosystems, providing natural flood control, water quality and prime habitat for fish and wildlife….But we’re losing these precious natural resources at an alarming rate. World Wetlands Day is a good opportunity to highlight this imperiled ecosystem, but the focus really needs to be continual.”
A special focus of the day this year is the wetlands along the Gulf of Mexico coast, hit hard by the massive Deepwater Horizon oil spill, on top of a continual loss. “This region continues to lose wetland habitat the size of a football field every 30 minutes,” notes Ducks Unlimited.