Interior Secretary Gale Norton announced today that after decades of trying to stop the loss of wetlands, the country has finally succeeded.
"For the first time since we began to collect data in 1954, wetland gains have outdistanced wetland losses," Norton said.
When the government first started tracking wetlands, each year the country was losing about half a million acres of wetlands -- about the size of Rhode Island. The country has lost about half of its wetlands, and each of the last three presidents stressed the importance of reversing that trend.
Norton released a survey compiled by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that shows a net increase of wetlands of 192,000 acres from 1998 to 2004. To compile the survey, government scientists used aerial and satellite images and visited thousands of sites.
But some environmental groups and hunting organizations accused the government of misleading Americans about the state of wetlands. That's because the survey counted ponds and reservoirs as wetlands. If ponds had not been included, the report would show the nation still losing wetlands.
Julie Sibbing of the National Wildlife Federation said ponds are not wetlands, so the government missed the point of its own report.
"This tells us a lot. We have a growing trend of building ponds and golf course water traps and we're still losing natural wetlands," Sibbing said.
Norton said the Fish and Wildlife Service's survey has always included ponds. And she said it doesn't pretend to judge wetland quality.
Wetlands experts stressed that quality matters a great deal when you're talking about wetlands. The main reason Americans care about wetlands is because they are so valuable to the environment.
Patrick Megonigal, a wetlands scientist at the Smithsonian's Environmental Research Center, said there is no question that the nation loses something when it trades a natural wetland for an artificial pond.
Megonigal chose a new housing development in Edgewater, Md., near the Chesapeake Bay, to illustrate his point. He stood between a natural wetland and a pond that developers built to contain storm-water runoff from the new subdivision.
"It's a good place to make the point that not all wetlands are created equal," Megonigal said. "There are many different types of wetlands, and we're losing in many cases highly functioning, high-quality wetlands and replacing them with low-quality wetlands."
Megonigal said both the wetland and the pond serve the functions that make wetlands so valuable for people. They filter pollution, reduce flooding, and provide habitat for wildlife. But he said wetlands perform those tasks much more expertly.
A much greater variety of plants and animals live in swamps and marshes than in ponds. And the soil chemistry and the plant life in wetlands make them much better at cleaning water.
"Here in the forested wetlands, when the water flows through here, even the smallest particles, the clays, stick to the surfaces of stems and to the leaf litter that's laying here on the forest floor. And so, that's one reason the forest is more efficient at removing pollutants from the water than the pond," Megonigal said.
By contrast, in the pond, much of the pollution stays suspended in the water.
"And so if there's a big rainstorm those pollutants in the water get flushed out of the pond and end up in our waterways," Megonigal added. "That doesn't happen in a forested system."
Federal officials agreed that wetland quality is important, but said the survey was not designed to evaluate that.
"We've never asked this report to tell us every single acre out there and what the quality is," said Matthew Hogan, the deputy assistant secretary of Interior Department who oversees the Fish and Wildlife Service. "It just says overall in the landscape we've seen a net increase in wetlands.
"Just like when we do a census, it tells us how many people are living there but it doesn't say what kind of furniture they have in their house or if they're happy in their jobs," added Hogan.
Officials also conceded that the survey report was not up to date. It does not include the loss of coastal wetlands in the Gulf Coast area from hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
The U.S. Geological Survey, another agency of the Interior Department, estimated that the storms destroyed about 100 square miles of marshes. According to the Survey, that would equal about twice the amount of wetlands the country has been gaining each year.