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Wetland forests: What are they worth? (commentary)

  • The wetland forests of the Southern United States are a valuable, yet vulnerable, national treasure. Their tangled branches, ancient butted roots, and swampy mystique conceal rare and beautiful wildlife and are deeply ingrained in the cultural heritage of the region.
  • Wetland forests provide vital ecosystem services for people living in the U.S. South. These benefits include protecting communities from the worst impacts of hurricanes and flooding, supporting a vibrant recreation economy, improving property values, providing opportunities for ecotourism, filtering water, treating waste, supporting pollinators, growing food and forest products, and even cooling the worst of the South’s sticky hot summers.
  • Just a few hundred years ago, the swamps of the South were drastically different. They stretched over the landscape where tree plantations, farms, and cities have now replaced them. The forested wetlands of the Southern US and the myriad benefits they provide are crucial to the health and wellbeing of the region, which is why we should work to protect them.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

Stretching from the historic Chesapeake Bay, down along the Atlantic coastline, across the Gulf of Mexico, into the mysterious bayou swamps of Louisiana, then into eastern Texas and up the Mississippi, the wetland forests of the Southern United States are a valuable, yet vulnerable, national treasure. Their tangled branches, ancient butted roots, and swampy mystique conceal rare and beautiful wildlife and are deeply ingrained in the cultural heritage of the region. Wetland forests are only a fraction of what they were in pre-colonial times, yet they still provide essential, life-giving support to communities that have sprung up around them.

Wetland forests provide vital ecosystem services for people living in the U.S. South. These benefits include protecting communities from the worst impacts of hurricanes and flooding, supporting a vibrant recreation economy, improving property values, providing opportunities for ecotourism, filtering water, treating waste, supporting pollinators, growing food and forest products, and even cooling the worst of the South’s sticky hot summers. All told, according to a report by Dogwood Alliance (written by Dr. Sam Davis, one of the authors of this article), Southern wetland forests ecosystem services are worth more than $500 billion.

Remnants of ancient majesty

Just a few hundred years ago, the swamps of the South were drastically different. They stretched over the landscape where tree plantations, farms, and cities have now replaced them. While wetland forests are still rife with the sounds of migratory songbirds and frogs today, they once also held large, boisterous flocks of the Carolina parakeet, long ago. The colorful bird apparently made quite the ruckus in swamps as they nested in hollowed out trees and survived on seeds of cypress, hackberry, and other tree species. The last known Carolina parakeet died in 1918. These once-ubiquitous birds had fallen victims to deforestation and disease.

Carolina parakeets once thrived in wetland forests. Illustration of the Carolina parakeet by Jacques Barraband (1801).

Similarly, when “virgin” wetland forests were common, one of the largest woodpeckers in the world ruled Southern wetlands. The ivory-billed woodpecker is now nothing more than a legend of the swamp, with supposed sightings designated to the annals of weird history and to the metal engravings of Arkansas license plates.

One ancient species remains as a cornerstone of swamps, and its health and vigor keeps visitors coming back for more: The American alligator. The species nearly went the way of the Carolina parakeet and the ivory-billed woodpecker, but, in 1967, it was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service then stepped up to save the American alligator before it was too late. These majestic creatures provide innumerable benefits to the culture and history of American swamps.

A way out of forest products

No one wants to see a forest clear cut. The sad stumps and dry brown earth roasting in the sun is painful to view at a deep level. Many can remember the first time they saw a clear-cut. Coming around the bend on a state forest road, harsh sunlight reflecting down on huge red treads carved into the earth, rusty yellow machines, vacant up on the ridge.

A male ivory-billed woodpecker leaving the nest as the female returns. Photo taken in the Singer Tract, Louisiana, April 1935, by Arthur A. Allen.

Witnessing a clear-cut is a feeling that has been felt across generations. Even Thoreau wrote about the intrinsic worth of standing forests and ancient swamps. “A town is saved,” he wrote in Walden, “not more by the righteous men in it, than by the woods and swamps that surround it.”

The simple fact is that forests and wetland forests don’t have to die to make us money. Look at Louisiana. Swamp tour guides in the Atchafalaya basin use a mix of ecology and local culture to turn these landscapes into once-in-a-lifetime adventures for their paying customers. Compared to traditional forest harvests, swamp tours are a way for local communities to profit from their natural resources without destroying wildlife habitat and degrading natural beauty. Recreation, tourism, and aesthetics together in Southern wetland forests provide about $126 billion to the region in ecosystem services.

The region’s filters

Perhaps most impressive is the background work that our Southern wetland forests do to make sure that surrounding communities have clean, cool air to breathe, and clean, fresh water to drink. A tree-shaded house can lower cooling bills by up to 25 percent — imagine what a tree-shaded region saves. As regions become more and more forested, they become cooler. Nowhere is that more necessary than in the U.S. South, which is expected to bear some of the worst burdens of climate change.

Wetland forests, like Robertson Mill Pond in North Carolina (pictured), provide valuable ecosystem services to local communities. Photo Credit: Dogwood Alliance.

But forests don’t only cool and clean the air — they also filter our water. Nearly 50 million people in the South rely on forests for their fresh drinking water. In North Carolina, where both authors of this article live, over a third of residents rely on private wells for their clean water. Forested wetlands remove pollutants from rainwater and runoff before it reaches residential wells like ours.

Honoring our wetlands

Wetlands and wetland forests are so incredibly important to our way of life in the US South. We are proud of our Southern swamps and their intrinsic values. We’re grateful for the fresh water, cool air, food, and sense of wonder that they provide to the region every day. As sponges of our natural system, the South’s wetland forests safeguard us from the worst impacts of natural disasters. We are hopeful for a future where we can make their protection and restoration a priority, so that future generations can continue to benefit from their standing legacy.

In that spirit, we are adventuring out into the swamps of the US South to document their value and legacy in our lives. In the first episode of The Wetland Wanderer, Lucia Ibarra visits the Robertson Millpond Preserve in Wake County, North Carolina. Designated a Wake County Historical Landmark, this 85-acre gem and paddling destination represents the best-case scenario when industrial uses (e.g., a mill) go out of favor in natural areas and the wetlands are restored.

The small areas has recorded over 70 bird species to date, including owls, kingfishers, warblers, and a variety of woodpeckers. It is open to visitors on weekends, a place to reimagine the wonders that the vast expanses of historical Southern swamps once held.

The forested wetlands of the Southern US and the myriad benefits they provide are crucial to the health and wellbeing of the region (you can read more here), which is why we should work to protect them.

Featured photo: An American Alligator, once on the verge of extinction, swims through murky swamp. Image via Pixabay.

Dr. Sam Davis is Research Manager and Lucia Ibarra is Outreach Manager at Dogwood Alliance.

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