Wetlands: Past and Future

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

The Environmental Law Institute (ELI) is pleased to announce the winners of the 33rd Annual National Wetlands Awards: John R. White, Jessica Hua, Mark Laska, Zachariah Perry, and Mick Micacchion. 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 five wetlands champions during an Awards Ceremony on May 19th at the National Academy of Sciences and via a month-long digital campaign throughout May, which is National Wetlands Month. As part of this campaign, ELI has invited our awardees to contribute their unique perspectives on wetlands protection to a post for ELI’s Vibrant Environment blog. Today’s piece features contributions from Mark Laska, winner of the Business Leadership category.

I’ve been practicing ecological restoration for more than 25 years. Twenty-five years ago, the landscape for ecological restoration—particularly wetland restoration—looked very different than it does today. While this is true across many industries, I believe it’s important to highlight because of our tendency toward both generational and ecological amnesia—the tendency to forget how things used to be, for better or worse. Here are five significant ways the industry has changed—for the better.

Wetland in Washington State

First, when I began in this career, the field was dominated by engineers, who usually came up with very rigid designs that didn’t consider multiple facets of an ecosystem. Now, the field is driven by ecologists, wetland scientists, and landscape architects. As a result, you see whole-systems thinking more often in the creation and restoration of wetlands. Engineers remain an important an important member of restoration design teams, and today environmental engineers are taught principles of ecology, which support more robust design than in earlier days.

Second, we’ve learned a lot about wetland science over the past 25 years. Many early designs failed because we didn’t have a process in place to study feasibility or design based off successful wetlands, and we also lacked success criteria. A tremendous amount of work—from practitioners and researchers alike—has gone into helping us better understand wetland design and function.

The third is that the regulatory structure under which we operate has shifted. An entire field has arisen around mitigation banking; we now have no-net loss policies for wetlands, and we work to offset impacts to wetlands rather than seeing wetlands as a nuisance.

Additionally, in the early days, wetlands were a dumping ground—they were not considered important habitat. Today, we see significant public benefits from wetlands and celebrate these spaces. Those benefits include waterfront parks, water quality improvements, wildlife viewing destinations, and more. Through my leadership at Great Ecology, I’ve had the opportunity to work on more than 50 parks with a wetland component, with projects ranging from stormwater management to public access to managing coastal processes such as storm surges and shoreline stability.

And finally, when I started as a practitioner, wetland restoration was a niche practice with only a handful of professionals, academics, and regulators. I sometimes found myself explaining to people what a wetland was and why it was valuable! Now, the number of restoration professionals has exploded into a multi-billion-dollar industry that employees more than 100,000 people.

Of these changes, the one that has had the most impact on wetlands is regulation that has risen out of public awareness, and changes in our society’s value of wetlands and recognition of their critical importance. Wetlands get restored because of regulations that reflect the will of the people. There has been ongoing debate over what a wetland is—and what qualifies as Waters of the United States—and these definitions continue to shift under almost every presidential administration. As these definitions change, regulations about wetlands and approaches to restoring them have also changed. Policies vary from state to state, with some states tightening up restrictions and regulations to protect these resources in the face of uncertainty over the federal definition of wetlands. Significant time and money have been spent trying to define wetlands.

People are also beginning to realize that there is money to be made from restoring wetlands rather than filling them. This could lead to significant opportunities for wetland restoration professionals. As my generation prepares to pass the baton to the next generation of wetland professionals, here are five things to consider for the next 25 years:

First, the development pressures on wetlands are not going to go away, even if there is more regulatory oversight. We have fewer wetlands now than when I got into this field.

Second, changes to abiotic systems (water quantity, temperature, salinity, etc.) will have an increasing—and in some cases, compounding—effect on wetlands. Wetland professionals will need to plan for forecasted changes to the area.

Third, there are contaminants in all our systems—and often we are creating attractive nuisances that are focused on habitat creation rather than removing contamination that is already present. Practitioners of the future will do well to build their understanding of the short and long-term impacts of contamination in wetland systems and how to deal with these contaminants.

In addition, only a few of the wetland restoration projects I’ve worked on through Great Ecology have been large. Smaller wetlands in public spaces are great for a demonstration site or living classroom. However, we need larger wetland complexes to support dwindling species populations. This may look like pooling projects, which currently happen through mitigation banks, to help create larger wetland habitats.

Finally, we need to find ways to streamline the regulatory approval process so that it does not take more time for a wetland restoration project to be approved than it does for the project that causes the impact to be approved.

All of this will require more people trained as ecological restoration professionals—and more people trained specifically in wetland restoration, since these are complex and fragile systems. The future of wetland restoration will require more people working in industry, nonprofits, and regulatory agencies to help restore, create, and mitigate wetlands in the coming years. This industry has already proven itself to be viable and important. Now we need more people to do the work.