Perspectives From Our Wetland Heroes: Part 1

Monday, May 11, 2020

Wetland Program Manager, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission

Principal of EcoMetrics and founder of Riparian Reconnect in Buena Vista, Colorado

The Environmental Law Institute (ELI) is pleased to announce the winners of the 31st Annual National Wetlands Awards: Mark Beardsley; John W. Day Jr.; Trinity Favazza; Ted LaGrange; Sam Lovall; and Robert Wade. Together, these awardees have restored, researched, and protected thousands of acres of wetlands nationwide; their examples have inspired many members of their community to act and make a difference to protect and improve these vital natural resources.

ELI will honor these six wetlands champions virtually via a month-long digital campaign throughout May, which is also National Wetlands Month. As part of this campaign, ELI has invited each of our six awardees to contribute, in pairs, their unique perspectives on wetlands protection to a post for ELI’s Vibrant Environment blog. Today’s piece features contributions from Ted LaGrange, winner of the Wetlands Program Development category and Mark Beardsley, winner of the Business Leadership award.

The Contemporary Significance of Wetlands Restoration
(by Ted LaGrange)

I have had a love of wetlands for as long as I can remember. Wetlands are amazing and fascinating places—they are home to an abundance of diverse life forms, they are constantly changing, and they provide a wide array of benefits to society. It brings me great joy to visit a highly functioning wetland that is so full of life, and the conservation of wetlands has been a life-long passion of mine.Photo by Ted LaGrange

As hard as it is for me to understand, some people do not share my passion for wetlands. So, why should you care about wetlands conservation? The answer is that wetlands provide a wide array of services to all of us, even those of you who don’t enjoy visiting them. These services include not only fish and wildlife habitat and places for recreation, but also providing open spaces, improving our water quality, recharging groundwater, reducing flood risk to our homes, and providing us with food.

Sadly, many of our wetlands are no longer able to provide these services because they have been destroyed or are in a highly degraded condition. In most cases, this has been the result of years of alterations to both the wetlands and the watersheds that support the wetlands.

But there is hope! Most of our wetlands are highly resilient and can be restored back to life. Over a career that has now spanned 40 years, I have had the privilege of working on many wetland restoration projects in Iowa and Nebraska. None of these projects were accomplished alone. They all were collaborative efforts with different partners who had different areas of expertise. Collectively, we have learned a lot over the years about how to best restore wetlands—and also what not to do. We learn from both our successes and our failures, but it is always easiest for us to talk about the successes.

Photo by Ted LaGrangeAlthough every wetland restoration project is unique, some common elements of success include: working in partnership including with landowners; being patient and adaptive; defining the objectives before starting; understanding the type of wetland you are restoring; assessing the alterations to the wetland and its watershed; working to fix the alterations as best you are able; understanding that you are not always able to get everything you want; planning for and implementing wetland management; and revisiting the wetland to learn from your mistakes and successes.

Nothing in my career has given me more satisfaction than visiting a wetland that has been successfully improved through restoration. I try to do this as often as I can, as it helps to recharge my soul. But even if you never have the pleasure of watching a wetland stir to life at dawn, you should care about wetlands, and restoring them for the many services they provide you.


Healthy Wetlands Benefit Nature and People in Colorado
(by Mark Beardsley)

The thing that inspires me to do wetland restoration is a respect for nature and appreciation of the intrinsic value of natural ecosystems. I’m with Aldo Leopold when he says that “a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” To me, the awesomeness of the natural world, of which we people are members and citizens, just seems worthy in and of itself.

While restoring natural streams and wetlands for their own benefit according to a Land Ethic is a noble cause, you are probably not going to get a lot of restoration done if that is your only motive. Today, perhaps even more than in Leopold’s day, the immediate, and often urgent, needs of society tend to trump the long-term values of nature. The people who pay for wetland restoration need to know what’s in it for them right now.Healthy wetland systems like this one in the headwaters of Colorado’s South Platte catchment naturally provide essential services to society while maintaining the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. Photo courtesy of Mark Beardsley.

This is an exciting time for nature-lovers like me because there is growing appreciation for the ecosystem services that natural wetlands provide. In Colorado, where I work, our biggest concern is water. It’s dry here, and our population is skyrocketing. We worry a lot about the things that threaten the supply of clean water for people. Natural hazards like drought, floods, and forest fires are especially worrisome as they become more intense with climate change. Wetlands, it turns out, are really good at protecting against threats like these, mostly because they are naturally retentive.

My friend Buffy Length of the Central Colorado Conservancy puts it simply: basins with healthy wetlands are more like catchments than watersheds. They catch water and sediment rather than shed them. By dissipating flood flows and retaining water, wetlands buffer the impacts of flood and drought. Wetlands are fire breaks, helping prevent small forest fires from growing into large ones, and after a fire, they are excellent at retaining sediment and processing it into rich alluvial soil rather than transmitting it downstream into reservoirs.

The cool thing about wetlands is that they provide these economically valuable services as part of their natural functioning, not in spite of it. They serve these basic societal needs while providing habitat that most of our state’s plants and animals depend on. We don’t have to do a thing besides letting them function naturally and, in cases where we’ve impaired them, to help them heal through restoration. As Leopold put it: When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect. There is no other way for land to survive the impact of mechanized man, nor for us to reap from it the esthetic harvest it is capable, under science, of contributing to culture. 

We have a lot of impaired wetlands here in Colorado and therefore a huge opportunity to restore the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. Restoring stream and wetland health is what motivates me, and the contemporary significance of healthy wetlands in the role of water security is making that possible. As society invests more in natural solutions and green infrastructure, it appears that both nature and people can benefit.