Volume 12, Issue 18 ~ April 29-May 5, 2004
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by Steve Carr

How Much for that Wetland?
When I was growing up along the Severn, one of my favorite hangouts was the Pendennis Swamp. It’s still there today in all of its diminished glory.

B&A Boulevard blocks its path to the river, creating an unnatural dam that has backed up the water and killed most of the trees. The stately old oaks that managed to survive have recently been illegally topped by homeowners looking for an unobstructed view of the Naval Academy. Discarded yard waste from nearby homes has introduced a myriad of non-native plants into this fragile ecosystem, like some mad science experiment gone awry. It was a far different place 35 years ago.

A Lesson in Gravity
I read a story the other day about a recently handed down federal court ruling involving some small-time developer in Parsonsburg, Maryland, who wanted to dig a three-foot-wide drainage ditch through some wetlands on his property so he could build a small subdivision on an abandoned farm field. After much wrangling, he was told he couldn’t because that ditch would flow into a culvert, then into another farm ditch, then down through several more culverts, an occasional pond and five dams before finally draining into the Wicomico River. Now there’s a lesson in gravity for you.

illustration by Gary Pendleton
Wetlands have real value. They enhance a property. Who wouldn’t want to live near a colorful natural area filled with interesting wildlife?
The federal government calls the shots in cases like this. The mandate of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers falls under the provisions of the Clean Water Act, which give it dominion over “the waters of the United States.” But let’s be clear here: What that meant historically was navigable waters. Recent court rulings have now expanded federal control far beyond the places where people play with boats.

The property rights folks are, quite naturally, upset about what they see as government intrusion into state and personal affairs. They have petitioned their case all the way to the Supreme Court. Who knows where all of this will ultimately lead?

The Last Bastion of Wild Things
I find the whole debate rather amusing. Apparently we have collectively lost sight of the value of these non-tidal wetlands as the last bastion for the wild critters of this rapidly suburbanizing nation of ours. Want to see a racoon? Find the nearest wetland. Ditto for most birds, bugs and reptiles. Wetlands are like Indian Reservations. They are the last places where the wild things live — albeit slightly mutated.

Frankly, it matters little to me whether a wetland flows into federal waters or not. That’s silly stuff, and it misses the point. What matters to me is that when we lose a wetland, we lose an irreplaceable piece of our uniqueness — property rights or smooth sailing be damned. No one has the God-given right, or the regulatory authority, to undertake such an abominable act. We simply can’t continue nickel and diming nature in this way without the bill coming due.

Perhaps a bit of perspective is in order.

A few years back I was involved in an environmental battle over the wetlands on a pretty big chunk of the Odenton Town Center. I don’t remember the exact numbers, but the proposal envisioned the elimination and mass grading of more wetlands than had been destroyed in the whole state during the previous year. I remember walking the site with the developer and regulators from the county, state and federal governments. We all had loads of fun traipsing through the greenbriar and hanging flags on tree branches to delineate the wetlands. The wetlands experts debated whether the wetlands were “significant” or just “marginal,” and they dickered over the boundaries like they were trading away unwanted relics or establishing the borders of Africa. It made no sense. No one could ever agree. But we were, once again, missing the point.

What’s a Wetland Worth?
Wetlands have value. I mean real value in a marketing sense. They enhance a property. Who wouldn’t want to live near a colorful natural area filled with interesting wildlife? Many people will even pay more money for such a privilege. Developers inherently understand this, and the smart ones use it as a selling point. The dunderhead developers, however, just don’t get it.

The Odenton Town Center could market the surrounding wetlands as an amenity. Provide some natural space in the midst of concrete and glass where people can be human. Wouldn’t the Annapolis Mall — or Westfield Shoppingtown Annapolis, as it’s called these days by its owners — be a much nicer place if it had a swamp in the middle of it? You bet it would.

I’m not advocating that we should start building in the midst of wetlands. What I’m trying to get at is more about our perception of value. This is an aspect of our culture even more difficult to map than a wetland. When athletes make gobs more money than teachers and police, it’s pretty clear that it isn’t easy determining something’s, or someone’s, real value in our society.

So ask yourself, “What’s a wetland worth?”

What does it do? What goods or services does it provide? Can we put an actual price tag on such an intangible notion?

Well, believe it or not, some smart boys and girls who work in the wetlands field have concocted this really complex formula where they add up all sorts of neat things about wetlands and attach an arbitrary dollar amount to each benefit.

For instance, if it has woodpeckers, then that’s worth, say, $500. We need woodpeckers. Wetlands also help to filter nasty pollutants that run off the developed landscape. Okay, that’s worth $5,000. I’m making these numbers up. Nevertheless, the wetlands gurus have come up with an estimated value for an average acre of non-tidal wetlands. Left in its natural state, just being home to frogs and mice and a zillion and one other critters, it’s worth $10,000 an acre. That seems low to me. But, then, I never agreed with the wetlands boundaries, either.

But What Is a Wetland?
What’s equally interesting about this debate is the fact that the regulatory powers of this proud nation of ours still can’t agree on what a non-tidal wetland actually is. They have established three criteria. The first two are straight forward: wet soils and water-loving plants. But the third deals with how longstanding water persists during the “growing season.” Unfortunately, the state and feds can’t seem to agree on how long the growing season lasts.

This would all be rather comical if not for the fact that this confusion allows wetlands to be impacted, degraded and destroyed on a regular basis throughout the Bay watershed. We need only look at Soil Conservation Service wetlands maps for Southern Anne Arundel County or Calvert County from the 1960s to see there were lots and lots of wetlands.

Now superimpose a current development map over the top of those old wetlands maps, and you will see the horrific extent of the loss. In the meantime, the regulators from the state and federal governments keep tooting their horns about “no net loss of wetlands.”

Clearly, something isn’t right with this picture. We continue to see houses and commercial buildings plunked onto or at the edge of forgotten wetlands on nearly a daily basis. In fact, it’s hard to find a development project these days that hasn’t impacted wetlands in some negative way. That guy in Parsonsburg might not have gotten his ditch, but most other people figure out clever ways to avoid the regulatory hammer.

Worth Life Itself
In the summer of 1963, the Pendennis Swamp was a place to play. My buddies and I had made Indian paths around the edges of the wetlands. We had a tree fort in the crook of an old black locust that guarded the swamp like a lone sentinel. A pair of bald eagles nested in the top of a crazy-looking snag that had been fried by lightning. Several pileated woodpeckers did their head-pounder dance in search of yummy insects from dawn till dusk. And the tree frogs sang incessantly like a gospel choir.

It was a place where young kids could hide. Smoke a cigarette. Play combat. Talk about girls. Walk in the gooey black stink mud, howling in mock fear that it was quicksand. And pretend there was no tomorrow.

Today I often wonder where that magical place has vanished. And I fear our children and the animal community will soon wake up to find that wetlands are a thing of the past. How sad.

The Native Americans look at wetlands in a whole different way. They see the places where water walks upon the earth as sacred. This is where the spirits reside. They could place no higher value on these watery havens than that. They are worth life itself.

We would do well to reevaluate our priorities and remember that life begins where water feeds the land. To destroy such treasures will one day lead us all into bankruptcy.

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.
Last updated April 22, 2004 @ 1:20am.