By J. Dale James, Ph.D., and Ellen R. Herbert, Ph.D.
Wetlands are among the most valuable ecosystems on Earth, rivaling tropical rainforests in their biological productivity. Historically, wetland systems sustained civilizations by providing people with food and freshwater and protecting communities from flooding and storm surges.
Prior to European settlement of the United States, the American wilderness included a remarkable abundance and diversity of wetlands, ranging from prairie potholes and bottomland hardwood forests to coastal marshes and playa lakes. Collectively, these habitats once encompassed more than 220 million acres in the lower 48 states alone.
Today most Americans value wetlands for their wildness, beauty, and the many ecological benefits they provide. But wetlands were not always held in such high regard. As more settlers arrived and populations expanded westward, wetlands were considered obstacles to progress. Between 1780 and 1980, more than half the wetlands in the United States were drained, filled, or significantly altered.
Rates of wetland conversion have slowed in recent decades, but these crucial habitats continue to be lost and degraded at alarming rates. Wetland loss is now widely recognized as a serious threat to the nation’s environmental quality and economy. Moreover, there is a growing understanding that wetlands are in fact a crucial part of America’s natural wealth, providing us all with valuable ecological goods and services worth billions of dollars a year. Best of all, we receive these benefits free of charge.
Putting a Dollar Value on Wetlands
Ducks Unlimited members are keenly aware of the importance of conserving wetlands for waterfowl, but many other species also benefit from DU’s work. In fact, nearly half the bird species and two-thirds of the fish species in the United States rely on wetlands at some point during their lives. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that 101.6 million people—or 40 percent of the U.S. population age 16 and over—participate in fishing, hunting, bird-watching, or other forms of wildlife-associated recreation. These activities contribute more than $150 billion to the U.S. economy annually, representing nearly one percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. In addition, wetlands help support 75 percent of all commercially caught fish and shellfish, the harvest of which contributes an estimated $1.2 trillion to our economy each year.
Another valuable societal benefit provided by wetlands is clean water. Known as “nature’s kidneys,” wetlands slow the flow of water across the landscape, allowing sediment, nutrients, and other particles to settle to the bottom. Those nutrients in turn fuel wetland productivity, supporting plants and invertebrates that provide food and shelter for waterfowl, fish, and other wildlife.
In some cases, wetlands can even replace or supplement traditional water treatment systems. For example, New York invested nearly $1.5 billion in the restoration and protection of wetlands and adjacent lands in the Hudson River valley, which has saved taxpayers between $3 billion and $8 billion in drinking water pretreatment costs. Other states have begun to restore wetlands specifically for the purpose of […]