Swamps, bogs, wetlands, estuaries, marshes, muskegs; most people hate—or at least avoid them. We think of swamps as buggy, muddy, too dry to paddle, and too wet to hike. For decades, humanity has been diking marshes off, filling them in, or just plain ignoring them.
Those folks don’t know what they’re missing. The places on Earth that occupy the netherworld between land and water have a lot to offer: it’s in those intersections where nature thrives. And marshes play a critical, if not always an obvious role in the daily lives of anyone who loves the outdoors—even if those folks don’t own a pair of rubber boots.
Wetlands Clean Water
When water enters a marsh, with the fine plant roots of willows, grasses, sedges, and rushes, these roots absorb gobs of waterborne pollutants. In slower water, a lot of other nasty chemicals, which tend to be large, heavy molecules, sink to the bottom, where they tend to get buried in the mud and broken down by anaerobic bacteria, or at least stay out of the water column most of the time. Wetlands are so effective at cleaning the water that many cities—including my home of Portland, Oregon—have begun constructing mini-wetlands, called bioswales, next to the sidewalks of city streets, to catch road runoff and run it through a small array of plants as it heads into storm drains.
Marshes are Enormous Sponges
The plants that live there are used to—and actually, require—water levels that go up and down. Marshes act as a natural flood protector by absorbing the extra water when rivers overflow their banks. As people have expanded into riverfront land by filling wetlands or diking them to keep the floodwaters out, we’ve created a system that’s fragile, expensive, and risky. The Columbia River’s dikes in Portland require continuous maintenance—and a continuous search for basic funding. When they fail—as they did in the 1948 Vanport Flood—the results can be tragic. Keeping the marshes there—instead of filling them and then putting humans in harm’s way on the “reclaimed” land—is a cheaper and safer solution.
There are no better places on earth to see massive hordes of birds than wetlands. Bolinas Lagoon in California, Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Southeastern Oregon, Klamath Basin on the California-Oregon Border, the Everglades, and the barrier islands of the Gulf Coast all have one thing in common: they’re wetlands. Birders flock to these spots from around the world, especially during migration. Even the less exotic and famous birding spots in urban areas, like Smith and Bybee Lakes in Portland or Hayward Shoreline in the Bay Area, draw tons of birds in places accessible to urban dwellers looking to get out for an hour or two.
Birds are more visible, but fish use marshes even more. This makes them both an interesting place and a major economic driver. 70% of commercial fish species, salmon among them, spend a major part of their life cycle in wetlands. Salmon use brackish coastal marshes to let their bodies adjust to the transition between fresh and salt water. So many species around the world rely on wetlands that both a major industry and a major source of healthy protein for hungry people the world have a major stake in preserving them.
Protection from Massive Storms
Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy revealed in a tragic form that coastal wetlands protect cities from storms. Hurricanes that would have once broken themselves up on the coastal wetlands of the Mississippi Delta and the barrier islands of the east coast powered directly into New Orleans and New York, with enormous human and economic costs. The good news, if you can call it that, is that we’ve become more aware of the value of coastal wetlands, and some moves are underway to restore the coastal wetlands and move people out of harm’s way.
Wetlands and marshes are far more than just important economic drivers, barriers to storms, and producers of clean water. They’re fun! They’re accessible places to go for a quick stroll, bike ride, or paddle in many cities. Paddling the maze-like channels searching for birds can be as much fun as paddling more traditionally scenic waterways. They’re places for kids to catch bugs, muck around in the water, get their knees muddy, and simply explore. And you don’t even have to be a kid to enjoy those things: They’re fit for everyone.