August 23, 2022

A Brief History of the American Wetland Forests

Written by Jem Ashton
Trees growing in a Utah floodplain wetland habitat Trees growing in a Utah floodplain wetland habitat Photo courtesy of the Utah Geological Survey

In 1764, 25 years before he would become the first President of the United States, George Washington and five partners formed a company called Adventurers for Draining the Dismal Swamp. A surveyor by trade, Washington had thoroughly explored the perimeter of a million-acre wetland forest on what is now land bordering the states of Virginia and North Carolina. He called this area the Great Dismal Swamp and described it as a “glorious paradise” full of creatures to be hunted. A paradise rich with natural resources. Still, the Adventurers for Draining the Dismal Swamp, empowered by the General Assembly of Virginia, who granted them financing and permission to cut canals through even private lands, undertook a massive venture to clear cut vast stretches, selling the lumber and the promise of soon-to-be dry, arable land.

George Washington and his company were, of course, not the only ones harvesting the lumber from American wetlands. In the last 300 years, the majority of wetlands in the contiguous United States have been lost to logging or converted to land for agriculture or urban development. When European colonizers first arrived in the 1600s, the land was covered in approximately 221 million acres of wetlands - by the 1980s, only 103 million acres remained. Twenty-two states have lost 50% or more of their wetland forests and six states have lost more than 85%.

Through the 1700s especially, wetlands and swamps in particular were considered blights on what could be prosperous land. They “bred disease”, restricted travel, and took up rich soil where crops could be instead - far from favorable for frontier folk. The choice to clear the wetlands seemed natural, because these new settlers were oblivious to the resources that prospered in them and the protection they provided.

In the mid-1800s, the US government passed the Swamp Land Acts of 1849, 1850, and 1860 – each turning federal land containing swamps over to states that promised to drain them. During this time, the US was going through a period of rapid expansion. The population was growing quickly, both through domestic childbirth and immigration. While the country was also expanding westward, the need for farmable land nearby was high. So, again, the choice to clear more wetlands seemed natural.

Over the centuries, the American wetlands - refashioned to suit its new settlers - have changed drastically. While clearing the wetlands made sense at the time, we’ve come to learn that wetlands are invaluable resources and the long-term effects of this habitat loss has become clear.

Wetlands are an essential part of regional ecosystems – in which we’re included. We need wetlands to sustain our water supply, both because they work to filter pollutants and because they’re a source of water. They also work to protect our communities from severe weather, like hurricanes and flooding, by dampening the force with which they hit the land and by preventing land corrosion. Additionally, wetlands sequester approximately 20-30% of global carbon emissions - peatlands on their own store twice as much carbon as the world’s forests despite covering only 3% of the planet’s surface. These areas are also home to unique wildlife and fascinating plants; one-third of the currently-listed endangered species rely on wetlands to survive.

As the second driest state in the country, it’s no surprise that wetlands account for only 1% of Utah’s total land coverage. Because they’re so rare within our state, that makes them even more valuable. In an arid landscape, we need all the water we can get and our wetlands provide a hefty portion of our water supply. They’re also essential tools in preventing flooding, the costliest and most prevalent hazard in Utah. Although Utah’s wetlands are still in danger, we thankfully have many individuals in our community working to preserve and restore these valuable features of our state. Nonprofit communities (like the Sageland Collaborative and TreeUtah) along with governmental organizations (like the Utah Geological Survey) and numerous individuals throughout the state are working hard to maintain our wetlands.

To get involved with TreeUtah’s habitat restoration projects, check our events page or sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date on our latest projects.