When Dismal Swamps Became Priceless Wetlands
American attitudes toward them have taken a 180-degree turn over the last century—and so have the battles they provoke
May/June 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 3
Or, rather, to love the wetland. In a typically American job of verbal engineering, the evil connotations of swamps, bogs, potholes, river bottoms, and marshes were dispelled by giving them a new name, one that didn’t even enter most dictionaries until the 1950s. Having no history, it had no history of disparaging use. For once the trick seems to have worked. We still speak metaphorically of a bog or a swamp as something to avoid, but wetlands have acquired a sanctified status among environmental assets rivaled only by the ozone layer and the rain forest. If conservationists once pressed for their drainage, Republican Presidents now pledge to maintain them intact. To deny that a parcel of wetland even is really wetland is the best strategy if you wish to develop it.
If natural landscapes in general are now an end in themselves, the early conservation movement never hesitated to measure them and find them all short of their potential. The conservationists, in the words of one historian, “tended to see an intolerable scale of waste in nature’s economy.” They sought not to preserve nature in its original form but to “increase the efficiency of natural processes.” They would have welcomed the prospect of global warming as a way to facilitate settlement in the northern latitudes and reduce the consumption of heating fuel. To the conservationists, wetlands were foremost among nature’s failures or “accidents,” places where it had fallen down on the job and needed human help; if the hydrologie cycle represented the earth’s plumbing system, wetlands marked its damp basements, clogged drains, and burst pipes. Forest conservation meant the maintenance and management of timber stands to achieve a sustained yield of wood products, soil protection, and flood control; swampland policy meant drainage pure and simple. It would banish disease, turn useless waste into acreage for buildings and farms, and beautify the landscape. And if the impulses of forest owners to clear their holdings for quick profit had to be combated, those of swampland proprietors had only to be encouraged. Economic development and environmental improvement went hand in hand. Who drained a swamp for cultivation or filled it for construction could do well by doing good.
To the early conservationists, wetlands were nature’s failures
Therein lies a puzzle. If conversion offered such rewards, why was most of the nation’s original wetland area still unregenerate at the beginning of this century? Certainly not because it was remote from settlement or markets. Most of it lay within the thriving regions of the Mississippi Valley and the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Marshall Leighton blamed part of the failure to drain on ignorance and sloth. But more often, he thought, the will had been there but the ways had been lacking. Good intentions were frustrated by property boundaries and laissez faire.
Not a new idea, it echoed a long-held American belief: that wetlands could not be efficiently drained except by government action. In the mid-nineteenth century the Virginia agricultural writer Edmund Ruffin (later famous as a radical secessionist) summed up one of the key problems. When the ownership of a wet area lay in many hands, “nothing short of the general agreement of all the proprietors, and their co-operation in the expense and labor of one general scheme, can permit proper and profitable drainage to be executed. Of course, such co-operation, among scores, and, in some cases, hundreds of different proprietors, is impossible.” Moreover, as a contemporary of Ruffin observed, because private owners could not reap the full profits of their actions in improving public health, the medical arguments for drainage would not have the influence they merited. Individuals could no more be expected to reclaim for their neighbors’ health than—to use the example favored by British economists of the time—a sane investor would try to make a profit operating a lighthouse. Such services required intervention by a government with the power to coordinate action, condemn lands, and require would-be free riders to pay.