- Historic Sites
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
State after state during the nineteenth century passed laws to do just that. They reached their most elaborate form in drainage-district statutes. When a specified number of landowners in an area petitioned for a drainage project, a hearing was held. If the proposed work seemed practicable, a district encompassing the area affected was created with the power to issue bonds, assess the landholders—petitioners and opponents alike—and drain as needed. What one observer called “the forced participation of non-petitioning landowners” was the key to such districts. Seeking like the prohibitionists to dry up the country for the country’s good, the reclaimers thought the necessary infringement on personal liberty a small price to pay.
—its damp basements, clogged drains, and burst pipes.
Not everyone saw it that way, of course. District statutes designed to benefit the public health routinely passed court tests. Those aimed principally at improving farmlands fared poorly at first. Pennsylvania’s highest court, rejecting such “interference with private right,” suggested in 1872 that “men purchase land with their eyes open, and … they take it as it is, and cannot call upon their neighbors to help them to level it, or drain it, or pick the stones from it.” Judges in New Jersey looked with equal hostility on laws created “to enable one set of land owners to compel another set to co-operate, against their will, to drain that body of marsh land in which they have separate interests.” The challenges continued until their rejection by the United States Supreme Court in the mid-1880s.
What saved the laws was the assumption that no real cause for complaint existed; property rights were being invaded only for the property owner’s benefit. Because swampland conversion produced only winners, it was doing the recalcitrant a favor to force them to play. Landowners had nothing to lose but their chills and fevers.
With the approval of the courts, lawmakers around the country set about improving and expanding their drainage statutes. Coupled with an agricultural boom and technological improvements, these legal changes launched a fleet of reclamation projects in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For ardent drainage advocates, this progress, though rapid, was not rapid enough. Leighton and other conservationists lobbied for federal direction and assistance, citing as precedent the irrigation program in the West run by the Bureau of Reclamation. No such Bureau of Drainage ever emerged, but by 1920 state drainage districts in the United States encompassed an area larger than Missouri. The farmland under drainage, most of it originally wetland, doubled between 1905 and 1910 and again between 1910 and 1920.
Whomever else it may have profited, the drainage movement seems to have represented a windfall for the country lawyer. Dissatisfied landowners brought innumerable suits against local drainage projects, challenging the calculation of their assessments or the procedure for organizing the district. But they did not challenge the desirability of widespread drainage. It was at the national ‘level that such opposition began to emerge. The earliest effective resistance came from the hunters’ and sportsmen’s lobby, making common cause for the occasion with the nature-preservation movement. Such organizations as the Izaak Walton League, the Audubon Society, and the American Game Protective Association deplored the destruction by drainage of wildlife habitats. They attributed declines in waterfowl populations to excessive drainage and overhunting, and they began to press for the protection of wetland breeding grounds in the Midwest and elsewhere.
These early campaigns won a chilly reception. They seemed little more than the efforts of an elite to obstruct for its own convenience a work of national improvement. “If commerce must await the pleasure of an occasional fisherman,” observed the Chief Justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 1911, “then indeed it will be sadly handicapped.” What was better, Oregonians were asked, the “reclamation of a fertile and productive country” or the protection of “a shallow mosquito breeding swamp which harbors mainly worthless inedible birds”?
In fact, a growing number of Americans were beginning to prefer the latter. The case of malaria that he caught in the swamps and marshes of the Southeast in 1867 could not shake John Muir in his enthusiasm for their beauty. Muir deeply distrusted the economic logic of the conservation movement. Kindred spirits in the early twentieth century included the ecologist Aldo Leopold and the writer Willa Gather. In her 1923 novel A Lost Lady , Gather wrote sympathetically of a character who preserved a marsh on his farm for its “idleness and silvery beauty,” and harshly of another who acquired the marsh and drained it for “highly productive fields.”