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Wetlands a Vital Resource for Michigan's Wildlife, Environment, Citizenry
Michigan Ag Connection - 01/03/2018

When thinking about Michigan's important, valuable landscapes, many of us first think of the Great Lakes, northern forests and sandy beaches. Wetlands might not immediately come to mind.

They certainly didn't for early Michigan settlers, who were less than impressed with the state's abundance of swamps and marshes -- more than 10 million acres of wetlands before European settlement.

"The banks of the Detroit River are handsome, but nine-tenths of the land in the Territory is unfit for cultivation," said General Duncan McArthur, stationed at Fort Detroit, in 1814.

The 1816 Tiffin Report by Edward Tiffin, surveyor general of the United States, had equally disparaging things to say about Michigan's land and agricultural potential, including: "Michigan apparently consisted of swamps, lakes, and poor, sandy soil not worth the cost of surveying. Not more than one acre in a hundred, or perhaps a thousand, could be cultivated."

In the two centuries that followed, about half of Michigan's original wetlands have been drained and filled.

"Michigan was once considered a mosquito-infested, godforsaken swamp, and wetlands were drained to establish roads and agriculture and build communities," said Steve Shine, who coordinates wetland mitigation banking -- the process of establishing new wetland areas before development or other projects impact existing wetland areas -- for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. "This historic conversion of wetlands has made Michigan what it is today, but now we're focused on restoring wetlands to replace those impacted by agriculture, public works projects and development that are also important to the state."

Today, we recognize the value of wetlands, even celebrate them with observances like American Wetlands Month in May, and the need to conserve them.

"Michigan residents, whether they know it or not, have a strong connection to our state's wetlands and the waterfowl that rely on them," said Barb Avers, DNR waterfowl and wetland specialist. "Some go duck hunting every year, while others sit on their back porches and watch the annual fall waterfowl migrations. And many citizens get clear drinking water from groundwater purified by Michigan's wetlands."

In 1979, the Michigan legislature passed the state's wetlands protection statute, which recognizes the benefits and important functions and values provided by wetlands. Administered by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, Michigan's wetlands protection statute requires permits for construction activities in wetlands.

What exactly is a wetland?

Michigan law defines a wetland as "land characterized by the presence of water at a frequency and duration sufficient to support, and that under normal circumstances does support, wetland vegetation or aquatic life, and is commonly referred to as a bog, swamp, or marsh."

More simply put, wetlands are areas where land and water meet.

They are characterized by the presence of water that saturates the soil or covers the land for some or all of the year, which leads to the development of plant and animal communities adapted to these conditions.

The three major types of wetlands are marshes, which have standing water from less than an inch to several feet deep and might be called flooded grasslands; swamps, dominated by woody plants and best described as flooded woodlands or shrublands; and bogs, which occur where accumulations of decaying vegetation form mats that eventually cover and then fill in old ponds or lakes.

Wetlands play a critical role in managing Michigan's water-based resources, providing flood storage, groundwater recharge, wildlife habitat, pollution treatment, erosion control and nutrient uptake.

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