History of Wetlands in the United States
Historically wetlands have not been appreciated for their
value. In the 1700’s wetlands were viewed as swamps that
just bred disease, restricted travel, and occupied land that
could be used for agriculture. Due to population pressures
many settlers drained coastal plain wetlands and used the
land for crops. In the 1780’s settlement extended along
rivers in the Northeast. New York suffered losses of many
wetlands in river valleys during this time. This drainage for
agriculture and commercial transportation continued
throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. In the 1880s and
1890s many wetlands adjacent to growing urban areas were
drained for fear of disease. By the 1920’s levees, drainage
and water-diversion projects had affected 70% of original
wetland area. It has been estimated that urban development
accounts for 30% of all wetland losses, agriculture accounts
for 36% and 21% to rural development.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has passed acts that help protect wetlands including the
Migratory Bird Conservation Act of 1929 and numerous National Wildlife Refuge Acts.
The Ramsar Convention Treaty, adopted in 1973, is an intergovernmental treaty that
addresses the conservation and wise-use of wetlands.
In 1977, through the Clean Water Act (Section 404) discharge of dredged materials and the
filling of wetlands became regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers review and administer permits “for the discharge of
dredged or fill materials” into waters of the U.S., which includes navigable waters and
There must be notice and opportunity for public hearings before permits are issued.
Mitigation for unavoidable impacts to aquatic environments is required.
In the Food Security Act, there were “swampbuster” provisions (1985) which withholds
federal farm program benefits from farmers that convert wetlands to agricultural lands.
Currently there are 282 million acres of wetlands in the US and 3.4% of New York is
wetland area. It is estimated that 53% of total wetland acreage has been lost.
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