- 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
Many of the resource managers brought to power by the New Deal represented just such a chastened conservationism. Jay Norwood Darling, perhaps America’s most popular cartoonist, had long campaigned for wildlife protection. He laid his pencil aside in 1934 to spend a year as head of the U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey. In that capacity he scraped together unprecedented sums to expand waterfowl sanctuaries under a program that Congress had, after many defeats, authorized in 1929. The duck permit stamps were another of Darling’s achievements; hunters shooting in federal reserves were required to purchase them, the proceeds going toward refuge expansion. Darling himself designed the first stamp, and the program endures today.
Like the benefits that were once claimed for drainage, most of the benefits of Shetland don’t accrue to the property owner.
The Federal Aid to Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937 gave money to the states to purchase fish and game habitats. The Civilian Conservation Corps set to work undraining some of the Wisconsin marshes whose botched conversion Aldo Leopold had lamented. As Leopold put it, “A counter-epidemic of reflooding set in. Government bought land, resettled farmers, plugged ditches wholesale.” The Indiana legislature moved to protect some of what was left of the Kankakee Marsh. And the creation of a national park in the Lverglades in 1947 inaugurated a new era in federal policy; it was the first area so designated not for its conventionally spectacular scenery but for its subtler ecological virtues.
Yet if preservation had become the goal of some federal policies, drainage remained the result of others. Numerous Depression-era programs —agricultural ones in particular—encouraged wetland conversion. The Reconstruction Finance Corporation assisted existing reclamation projects, and the Works Progress Administration launched new ones; the WPA undertook a well-publicized program of drainage for mosquito control. And in the postwar years a farm revival incited a renewed assault on the wetlands. Small wetlands such as the potholes of the northern prairie states suffered especially heavy losses. Urban sprawl and highway construction also led to much filling of marsh and swamplands.
At the end of the Second World War, the total area of drained farmland, stable since the mid-1920s, began to increase sharply. Reliable numbers, here as elsewhere, are hard to come by; there are lies, damned lies, and environmental statistics. Yet some figures seem reasonably accurate. The average annual rate of loss between the 1950s and the 1970s exceeded half a million acres—or 780 square miles. More than two hundred million acres of wetlands in the southern forty-eight states at the time of European settlement have dwindled to perhaps ninety million today.
But in the past few decades, reclamation has been challenged as never before. Regulation has helped cut the annual loss by perhaps half. Almost without exception, drainage’s entries on the profit side of the social ledger have been shifted to the loss column, its onetime multiple benefits reinterpreted as multiple costs.
If drainage once improved the look of the land, today it is more likely to be seen as degrading it. Unaltered natural beauty has become the standard of judgment. So long as malaria and yellow fever were attributed to miasmatic gases from stagnant water, few weapons but drainage seemed available to combat them. The sanitary arguments for reclamation weakened when the diseases were traced around the turn of the century to mosquito-borne micro-organisms. Drainage remained an option for mosquito control, but a host of other, sometimes cheaper, remedies became available. As both diseases have become rare in any case, attention has shifted from the biotic benefits of drainage to those of wetlands, particularly their growing value as nursery, home, and granary for betterliked creatures than Aedes and Anopheles mosquitoes. In the 1940s ecologists began to measure the flows of energy through the landscape. Wetlands turned out to be not wastelands but the conservationist’s ideal, systems extraordinarily efficient in harnessing the sun’s rays to feed the food chain.
They have also turned out to be very important in the water cycle. Many conservationists had argued that forests should be protected because they prevent or moderate floods. But the similar role played by wetlands had largely been ignored. George Perkins Marsh, the pioneering American environmentalist of the midnineteenth century, was no fonder of the landscapes whose name he shared than were the Progressive-era conservationists he helped inspire. Yet he recognized far more clearly than they the secondary and inadvertent damage human action could inflict. For all the good done by drainage, he noted in 1864, “its extensive adoption appears to have been attended with some altogether unforeseen and undesirable consequences.” It replaced the “original equilibrium” of streamflow with a rapid alternation of extremes. Studies have indeed shown that many wetlands have value for flood protection far greater than their potential value for agriculture. Nor is the regulation of flow their only contribution. They filter water of sediment and other pollutants, improving its quality for use downstream.