In the early 1970s, wetlands became the only specific ecosystem to be the subject of a global treaty that provides “a framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources,” according to the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands website.
The treaty was negotiated by countries and non-governmental organizations from every region of the planet that were concerned about the loss and degradation of wetland habitat. It was adopted in Ramsar, Iran in 1971. Its mission is “the conservation and wise use of all wetlands through local and national actions and international cooperation, as a contribution towards achieving sustainable development throughout the world.”
The United States of America is one of 168 contracting parties in the Ramsar Convention, and has 35 sites that are classified as Wetlands of International Importance. Four are located in Florida:
· Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary near Naples, Fla.;
· Everglades National Park in south Florida;
· Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, in north Florida and south Georgia; and
· Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge in Indian River County, Fla.
What makes a wetland, a wetland?
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) define wetlands as areas that are inundated or saturated by surface or ground water at a frequency and duration sufficient to support vegetation typically adapted for life in saturated soil conditions. Wetlands include swamps, marshes, bogs and similar areas. Under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act of 1972, the Corps regulates the placement of dredged or fill material in waters of the United States, including wetlands, through the issuance of Department of the Army permits.
The Corps classifies an area as a wetland based on three factors: vegetation, soil and hydrology.
Although there are nearly 5,000 plant types that may occur in wetlands, a few are most common: bulrushes, sawgrass, sphagnum moss, bald cypress, willows and mangroves. Hydric soils occur when soil oxygen is limited by periods of saturation and is composed predominantly of decomposed plant material such as peat and muck. Hydrology refers to the presence of water at or above the soil surface, significantly influencing the types of plants and soils in the area, although the presence of water may be intermittent. Wetlands are not always wet!
Why are wetlands important?
Wetlands provide a number of beneficial services for people, fish and wildlife. Wetland functions include water quality improvement, floodwater storage (an acre can store up to one and a half million gallons), water purification and shoreline stabilization.
Wetlands provide important fish and wildlife habitat as well. According to a USEPA fact sheet, “wetlands are some of the most biologically productive natural ecosystems in the world, comparable to tropical rain forests and coral reefs in their productivity and the diversity of species they support.” Further, “up to one half of North American bird species nest or feed in wetlands” and although wetlands “keep only about five percent of the land surface in the conterminous United States, they are home to 31 percent of our plant species.”
The Ramsar Convention quantified its commitment to wetland conservation by adopting the following three “pillars of action.”
· Work towards the wise use of wetlands through a wide range of actions and processes contributing to human well-being through sustainable wetlands. Parties will ensure public participation in wetland management and promote communication, education and public awareness;
· Devote attention to the further identification, designation and management of a coherent and comprehensive suite of sites for the List of Wetlands of International Importance as a contribution to the establishment of a global ecological network, and to ensure the effective monitoring and management of listed sites; and
· Cooperate internationally in wetland conservation and wise use.