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.

They’re Fun!
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.