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When Dismal Swamps Became Priceless Wetlands

June 2024
15min read

American attitudes toward them have taken a 180-degree turn over the last century—and so have the battles they provoke

ORGANIZED AMERICAN ENVIRONMENTALISM IS HARDLY older than this century, and most of its current concerns are younger still. Some of the resources it now tries to protect, in fact, were among its original targets. To the conservation movement of the early 1900s, clearing a forest was a public offense, but draining a marsh or a swamp was a public duty. Even for conservationists, swamps still evoked the reactions they had evoked in the colonial period: disgust at their sight and smell, fear of malaria and yellow fever, and unease about rich resources running to waste within them. For the government scientist and prominent conservationist Marshall O. Leighton, writing in 1911, their drainage was the moral equivalent of war. He asked his readers to think of them as “a wondrousIy fertile country inhabited by a pestilent and marauding people who every year invaded our shores and killed and carried away thousands of our citizens, and each time shook their fists beneath our noses and cheerfully promised to come again.” Then we learned to stop worrying and love the swamp.

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.

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.”

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.”

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.

Most of these benefits, like those of fish and bird habitats, accrue to others than the owner of the wetland. As harmful as drainage can be, it remains very attractive for many wetland owners, for it can leave a net profit, while many of the costs—increased flood heights, dirtier water, impoverished wildlife, disfigured scenery—are passed on to others. This makes for an argument for state involvement oddly akin to that of the old drainage movement. Without government action, both would say, the wrong amount of conversion will take place, and individual freedom of action will undermine society’s good. Hence yesterday’s reclaimers and today’s preservationists have moral fervor in common, both seeing wetland management not as a private affair but as everyone’s business.

Sharing that faith, they have shared a fondness for sweeping rhetoric. Was government action to promote drainage “sanctioned by the usage of the whole civilized world,” as one American court thought obvious in 1870? Or was all drainage “bad for the marsh, and [bad] for mankind,” as another court held in 1975? What do we owe our future generations? Marshall Leighton urging drainage in 1912: “We can not feel that our full duty has been performed until we have made these swamp lands centers of prosperity for ourselves and those who shall come after.” A Wisconsin judge upholding preservation in the 1970s: “Most of [the land] belongs to those yet to be born.”

As the drainage movement once found support in state laws and federal policies, so now has the preservation movement. Acts of Congress in the 1970s curtailed much filling of areas under federal jurisdiction. President Carter in 1977 issued an Executive Order instructing federal agencies to minimize damage to wetlands. In 1989 the Environmental Protection Agency adopted a goal of no net loss of wetlands. Northeastern states have pioneered the protection of freshwater wetlands with approaches ranging from permit requirements to outright bans on some kinds of draining and filling. These programs are increasingly being imitated around the country.

Preservation, like drainage, imposes burdens whose allocation becomes a source of conflict. Many landowners in recent years have complained that wetland regulations devalue their oronertv bv blocking its development. Not only have they complained, but they have brought their complaints to court.

The takings clause of the Constitution has been at the center of the legal debate. It provides that when private property is taken for public use, just compensation must be paid to the owner. Ownership of property, the argument goes, is simply ownership of a set of legal rights to its use. Subtracting some of those rights is usually a taking that requires compensation to the extent that the market value remaining to the owner is diminished. But the more compensation the courts require, the less the government will want to protect wetlands. Because of that, environmentalists prefer to define wetland protection—like the abatement of nuisances and general land-use zoning—as a regulation, not a taking.

It is generally accepted that the government may regulate some activities without liability for any financial loss thereby imposed; it is also generally accepted that some regulations do require compensation. No formula for distinguishing the two has much clarified Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s singularly unhelpful statement of 1922 that “if regulation goes too far it will be recognized as a taking.” So how do the courts proceed? Another Holmes quotation is apposite: “The prophecies of what the courts will do in fact … are what I mean by the law.” Through the late 1960s the courts routinely resisted wetland regulations that didn’t compensate owners. They then did an about-face and began routinely to approve them. Now the rightward drift of the Supreme Court in recent years may mean that at least a partial reversal is again in the offing.

The question is not only whether wetland regulation without compensation is constitutional but whether it is advisable. There are strong arguments on both sides. We have moved from a calm, if mistaken, confidence in the harmony of all interests in drainage to what it is hard not to describe as a swamp of uncertainty. Is the larger public entitled to the benefits of wetlands at the expense solely of those unlucky enough to be holding them on the day of the regulation? Or, conversely, can those owners drain or fill at the expense of others?

Such controversies still rage, but rarely is drainage or filling still advanced as a positive good to the community. Attitudes in less than a century have undergone a remarkable change. Yet the history of wetland use points up the moral that attitudes are not all that matter. Fear and dislike of wetlands for most of American history were powerless to eradicate even a substantial fraction of them without the laws and technologies to do the job; the century in which those attitudes have been turned on their heads has been the one in which most of the drainage has taken place.

And even positive attitudes can have negative consequences. The ecologist Aldo Leopold wrote gloomily that “all conservation of wilderness is self-defeating, for to cherish we must see and fondle, and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wilderness left to cherish.” Wetlands may suffer in the future from the pressures of affection as they have suffered in the past from those of dislike; the more they are denned as unaltered natural landscapes, the more they invite use that will alter them.

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