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Wetlands Then and Now: Nominations for the 31st National Wetlands Awards Now Open

Wednesday, October 16, 2019
Dominic Scicchitano

Dominic Scicchitano

Research Associate

During the 19th century’s period of rapid population growth, America’s wetlands were largely considered to be an eyesore and an obstacle to development. These were bodies of water that needed to be drained in order to make way for agriculture, buildings, and major roadways. The successive Swamp Land Acts of 1849, 1850, and 1860 turned titles of federally owned swamp and “overflowed” land over to states, who in turn agreed to drain the land to make it fit for cultivation. This mindset, which viewed a wetland as a problem in need of a solution, persisted until the 1970s, when broader attitudes around conservation shifted.

As one might expect, a full century of aggressive habitat conversion decimated the nation’s wetlands. At the time of the Revolutionary War, the land area that today constitutes the United States included roughly 392 million acres of wetlands. By the 1980s, only an estimated 104 million acres of wetlands remained, signifying a 53-percent loss over the two prior centuries. Fortunately, a growing awareness of the importance of wetlands has contributed to sustained conservation and restoration efforts in recent decades. Policies like the Clean Water Act, the 1985 Food Security Act, and, more recently, the informal but widely accepted federal policy of “no net loss,” have proved instrumental in contemporary efforts to preserve America’s existing wetlands, restore those that have been degraded, and even create them anew.

Though the value of wetlands has grown to be more widely understood and accepted, the fight to protect wetlands is far from over. And, faced with the global climate crisis, wetlands protection is arguably more important now than ever before. For one, climate change’s promises of rising seas and more frequent droughts pose severe threats to both coastal and inland wetlands, which provide valuable ecosystem services and habitats for countless species. Indeed, many say that wetlands rival rainforests and coral reefs in their capacity to incubate biodiversity. A number of wetland varieties, particularly peatlands, are among the most effective carbon sequestering systems (or “carbon sinks”) on earth. Coastal wetlands also act as a buffer to reduce the intensity of waves, storm surges, and tsunamis, and are being incorporated into local and state climate resiliency plans. Wetland conservation and restoration, then, offers a promising avenue for both decelerating climate change itself as well as mitigating some of its most deleterious impacts.

Given the critical value of wetlands in today’s changing world, it is important that we recognize and support those working hard to protect these invaluable ecosystems. Since 1989, the Environmental Law Institute (ELI) has organized the National Wetlands Awards to honor those who have contributed in extraordinary ways to wetlands conservation and restoration. In this time, the Awards have honored over 200 individuals who have demonstrated remarkable dedication to protecting the nation’s remaining wetlands; educating citizens, students, and agencies about the value of wetlands; and working with a diverse array of organizations and stakeholders to advance wetlands protection.

ELI is now accepting nominations for the 31st Annual National Wetlands Awards. The program recognizes individuals who have demonstrated exceptional effort, innovation, and excellence in wetlands conservation or restoration at the local, state, or regional level. This year, ELI is excited to announce the addition of a new award category, Youth Leadership, to recognize the next generation of wetland stewards. Other categories include: Scientific Research; Promoting Awareness; Local Stewardship; Wetlands Program Development; and Business Leadership.

For full category descriptions and to nominate a wetlands champion you know, go to www.nationalwetlandsawards.org and complete the short nomination form. The deadline to nominate is Friday, December 20. Award recipients will be honored in Washington, D.C., during American Wetlands Month in May 2020 with an evening reception and ceremony. ELI administers these awards with support from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Natural Resource Conservation Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Wetlands Inventory, U.S. Forest Service, NOAA Marine Fisheries, and the Federal Highway Administration. Please e-mail us at wetlands@eli.org with any questions or comments.