EarthTalk: What defines a wetland and how
are wetlands protected in the U.S. and Canada from destruction
by development and other threats?
-- Julie, Olathe,
The U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency defines wetlands as lands where saturation
with water is the dominant factor determining the nature of
soil development and the types of plant and animal communities
living in the soil and on its surface. Environment Canadas
official definition is almost the same wording.
wetlands are essential ecological features in any landscape.
They are primary habitat for hundreds of species of waterfowl
as well as many other birds, fish, mammals and insects. They
naturally filter and recharge the water that later comes out
of our faucets downstream. They act like giant sponges, slowing
the flow of surface water and reducing the impact of flooding.
They prevent soil erosion and buffer water bodies from potentially
damaging land use activities such as agriculture. And they
can remove and store greenhouse gases from the Earths
atmosphere, slowing the onset of global warming.
More than half
of the original 221 million acres of wetlands that existed
in the continental U.S. at the time of white settlement were
destroyed by the 1980s. The story has been much the same in
Canada, with analysts estimating between a 30 and 70 percent
of that countrys wetlands lost during the same period.
importance of waterfowl and wetlands to North Americans and
the need for international cooperation to help in the recovery
of this shared resource, U.S. and Canada developed and signed
the North American Waterfowl Management Plan in 1986. Mexico
joined in 1993. The three countries have since spent $4.5
billion protecting some 15 million acres of wetlands in jeopardy
across the continent.
All three governments
have instituted complex regulations whereby developers wanting
to fill in wetlands must make a case to justify their project.
In many cases builders must create new wetlands elsewhere
to mitigate losses, though most scientists do
not consider man-made wetlands to be ecologically sound.
issues landed on the national political stage in the U.S.
during the 1988 presidential race, when candidate George H.W.
Bush promised that under his watch there would be no
net loss of wetlands. However, when the dust cleared
after the election, developers pressured the new Bush White
House to ease its stance and raise the number of days a piece
of land needed to be under water (from seven to 15 per year)
to qualify for protection. This allowed developers to build
on new tracts of land that were previously off-limits. Environmentalists
were incensed--and three key EPA scientists quit in disgust.
If you are concerned
about wetlands you have several options. By keeping up on
local building projects and zoning law, you can raise questions
during the planning process rather than complain after the
fact. Volunteering with national or local groups and land
trusts that work on wetlands restoration is another way to
help. American Rivers and the Izaak Walton League are two
leading nonprofits working on wetlands restoration and advocating
for wetlands protection in the United States; in Canada, the
Wetland Habitat Fund works with landowners nationwide to protect
wetlands, as does Ducks Unlimited Canada.
American Rivers, www.americanrivers.org;
Izaak Walton League, www.iwla.org;
Wetland Habitat Fund, www.whc.org/wetlandfund;
Ducks Unlimited Canada, www.wetlandscanadatrust.com.
What environmental impacts should our community expect
if we allow Wal-Mart to open up a store nearby?
-- Sara Jones,
With more than
6,000 stores spread out across the globe--Wal-Mart is the
worlds biggest retailer, hands down, and also a magnet
for criticism for its low wages, inadequate health coverage
and effect on struggling downtowns. Wal-Mart has also had
its share of environmental problems.
complain that the companys stores--often on the outskirts
of rural communities--eat up open space, replacing farms and
forests with concrete and pavement. And the company has been
fined repeatedly in recent years by various agencies for environmental
negligence. For example, in 2005, Wal-Mart paid $1.15 million
in fines to the state of Connecticut for the improper storage
of pesticides and other toxins that polluted streams near
its stores there, according to the website WakeUpWalMart.com.
A year earlier,
Florida fined the company $765,000 for violating petroleum
storage tank laws at its auto service centers. The company
admits that it failed to register its fuel tanks and to install
devices that prevent overflow, and that it did not perform
monthly monitoring, and that it blocked state inspections.
That same year, Georgia fined Wal-Mart $150,000 for contaminating
water outside of Atlanta.
And the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency penalized the company $3 million in 2004
for violating the Clean Water Act in nine states. The company
was also forced to change its building practices so as to
prevent future water contamination. This came on the heels
of a $1 million fine for Clean Water Act violations at 17
locations in four other states. Wal-Mart also agreed to establish
a $4.5 million environmental management plan to improve its
compliance with environmental laws at construction sites.
Wal-Mart says that
change is afoot within the company. CEO Lee Scott has said
that sustainability in all its forms is a key concern moving
forward. As one of the largest companies in the world,
with an expanding global presence, environmental problems
are our problems, Scott told company employees last
vision includes powering facilities and fleet with renewable
energy, cutting back on waste, and selling green products.
Wal-Mart reportedly crafted their greening plan with the help
of former Vice President Al Gore. Commitments include reducing
greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent at existing locations
20 percent, and investing $500 million in environmental improvements
each year moving forward.
Wal-Mart is also
reportedly ramping up plans to offer organic produce and using
local farms to save transportation costs. According to Ron
McCormick, an executive in the companys produce division,
Wal-Mart is already buying a wide variety of produce based
on whats available in each region, instead of shipping
produce across the country. Our whole focus is: How
can we reduce food-miles? he says.
The green attitude
also extends to other products, with the company increasing
offerings of sustainably harvested fish and organic cotton
clothing and bedding. Critics say Wal-Mart is so focused on
profit that such efforts will never stick. Only time will
tell if Scotts vision for a greener Wal-Mart becomes