Wetlands are the unsung champions of the natural world — watery, squishy places that fundamentally support our daily lives. Feb. 2, World Wetlands Day, is a time to celebrate these under-appreciated places in our landscape. Vermont is blessed with some of our region’s most important wetlands.
The Otter Creek Swamps, the largest wetland complex in New England spanning seven towns in Rutland and Addison counties, famously absorbed floodwaters during Tropical Storm Irene, reducing flood damage in downstream Middlebury. Expansive wild rice and bulrush marshes at the mouth of Lake Champlain’s tributaries are productive nurseries for young fish and ducklings alike.
The oxbow wetlands of the Connecticut River fill with spring floodwaters and absorb sediments that would otherwise cause water pollution. The south bay of Lake Memphremagog is a dream to paddle on a hot summer day, enlivened by the rattling, territorial calls of marsh wrens under the wheeling scrutiny of ospreys overhead.
Wetlands support wildlife and they support our lives, too. In Vermont, we have plenty of opportunities to restore wetlands: there are over 3,000 small and large wetlands in the Champlain Basin alone that have been drained and ditched, and some on unproductive farmland could be restored to their natural condition. Restored wetlands can make our lives better as they soak up stormwater and produce clean water, filter our air, and store carbon that might otherwise add to greenhouse gases. They add beauty to our lives and provide recreational opportunities, such as wildlife viewing.
A recent study commissioned by the Vermont Forest Partnership found that for every dollar invested in our forests and wetlands, $9 in natural goods and services, such as water quality protection, flood control and carbon storage, is returned to Vermonters. And a closer look revealed that Vermont wetlands top the list for economic return, providing an estimated $590 per acre annually in flood protection and wildlife habitat.
It’s time to give swamps back their good name and value them for what they have to offer. Take a snowshoe or ski trek to visit a frozen wetland this winter and imagine all the work these engines of the natural world quietly do for us throughout the year.
Rose Paul is The Nature Conservancy Science and Freshwater Programs director.