- 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
But their positions were not typical of the preservation advocates. If the fish and game interests were able to make rapid progress during the 1920s in swaying public opinion, it was because they were increasingly able to fight on their opponents’ own ground. They held drainage up to the standard of the conservationists—efficiency—and showed it often lacking. Experience gave them a mounting pile of impeccably utilitarian arguments to deploy.
Reclamation promoters relied on two assumptions: that what drainage destroyed was worth little and that what it produced was worth much. Their very success under- mined the first claim. Land for hunting and fishing and creatures to hunt and fish were growing scarce and valuable in many parts of the country; outdoor recreation by the 1920s was assuming an economic importance that could rival that of farming. Nor had the second assumption been everywhere borne out. The gains from drainage frequently did not live up to expectations. In 1924 the preservationists scored a notable success when Congress created the Upper Mississippi Wildlife and Fish Refuge in a region threatened by drainage projects. Testimony at the hearings on the bill documented not only the need for bird refuges but the disappointing results of many large reclamation enterprises around the country where soils had proved poorer, and drainage more costly, than expected. The success of the 1924 refuge bill owed much to this catalogue of failure.
Lower Klamath Lake, in northern California, had produced one of the most striking arguments against drainage, a testament to its ability to create truer wastelands than anything they replaced. Lower Klamath, a shallow sheet of water fringed by vast tule marshes, had been set aside by Theodore Roosevelt in 1908 as a national waterfowl sanctuary. In 1917, with federal authorities acquiescing, the inflow of water was cut off. Much of the lake bed dried up and became prey to dust storms. The land created fulfilled none of the promoters’ expectations. The desiccated peat of the marsh bottom caught fire. A visitor in the 1920s found “only weeds—miles and miles of thickly growing weeds … a scrawny, venomous snake … open flats over which whirlwinds chased each other like ghosts of the wild life that had departed.”
Until the early twentieth century the vast Kankakee Marsh of northern Indiana and Illinois supported diverse uses: hunting, trapping, haying, and timbering. Drainage for farming drove most of them out. As time went on, the transformed region looked less like what promoters called it—”a man-reclaimed area of extraordinary fertility” - than like “a manhandled marsh, a failure as a reclamation project, a substitution of unproductive lands for the most ideally adapted wild-life forms of plant and animal,” as A. H. Meyer put it in 1936. Meanwhile, farmers in upper Wisconsin fell victim in the early 1900s to “an epidemic of ditch-digging and land-booming,” as Aldo Leopold would write in his Sand County Almanac . “But crops were poor and beset by frosts, to which the expensive ditches added an aftermath of debt… . Peat beds dried, shrank, caught fire… . For a decade or two crops grew poorer, fires deeper … year by year.”
Similar problems plagued the most ambitious state reclamation project. Florida had long sought to drain the Everglades, sometimes in partnership with private enterprise, increasingly by itself. Here too the soils that came under cultivation proved poorer than expected, and peat fires became a growing menace. And most of the area never reached even that condition, as the cost of removing the water from the land proved prohibitive. The land that had been drained remained prone to flooding. By the late 1920s the Everglades Drainage District was broke, all reclamation had stopped, and many landowners were refusing to pay drainage taxes. By then Florida had spent almost twenty million dollars, the penalty it paid for rushing in where investors had rightly feared to tread.
Across the nation the gap between the cost and the value of reclaimed land soon widened even more. After a long agricultural depression began in the 1920s, falling prices devalued land and bankrupted many more districts than had been bagged by the hunters’ lobby. Farmers and investors alike became wary of projects that seemed principally to drain their pockets. At the same time, appreciation mounted of the benefits that unconverted wetlands could offer. It was only “during the past few years,” wrote one conservationist in 1930, that “we have modified our views … on ‘reclaiming the waste.’ Land is not necessarily waste if it is not used for farms.” Another remarked that “we now find that the best use of many of the swamps of the country is for parks and playgrounds or game refuges” or “in bringing about a proper regulation of water supply.”