by Shelly Morris, Western Kentucky Project Director
Did you know there’s actually a day of celebration reserved for wetlands? There is – February 2 is World Wetlands Day!
When asked about the importance of the Conservancy’s work in wetlands, I often answer with this staggering fact: “From 1780 to 1980, wetlands in Kentucky declined from about 1.6 million acres to about 300,000 acres. This is a decrease of over 80%, compared to national wetland losses of about 50% during that same time frame”. In other words, we used to have a great deal of wetlands in Kentucky, and now – we do not.
The majority of these wetland losses occurred through conversion of bottomland hardwood forests to agricultural fields in the westernmost part of the state. The large scale conversion of the forest to row crop agriculture has caused water quality degradation through an increase in sediment and nutrient runoff to waterways and has resulted in a dramatic loss of wildlife habitat.
Why are wetland restoration efforts so critical? Healthy wetlands are vital to protecting the water quality of our nation’s streams, rivers, lakes, and estuaries. They play an important role in intercepting sediments and pollutants from the land before they reach open water. Wetlands also play an important role in the storage of floodwaters, which reduces flooding risks to our communities.
Wetland habitat supports a wealth of wildlife; although wetlands make up only about 3.5% of the U.S. land area, more than one-third of threatened and endangered species live only in wetlands. An additional 20% of threatened and endangered species use wetlands at some time during their life. Many of North America’s bird species, especially waterfowl, use wetlands for food, water, and nesting and breeding habitat. Migratory water birds, including game species, rely on wetlands for staging areas, resting, feeding, breeding, and nesting grounds.
The Kentucky Chapter has operated at full speed in the area of wetland restoration and protection since 2011, the year we were awarded the first USDA Wetland Reserve Enhancement Program (WREP) project. Since that time, we have worked with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and other partners to enroll almost 5,000 acres in our focus area along the Mississippi River Bayous. These are privately owned tracts that will be restored and protected by a permanent conservation easement.
We have recently been awarded a second WREP project and are gearing up to enroll another 2,500 acres in this same area over the next three years. Landowners who are interested in wetlands restoration and protection on their own land can inquire about available wetland reserve programs at their local USDA office.