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Wetlands a vital resource for Michigan’s wildlife, environment, citizenry

More than 50 percent of Michigan’s wetlands, like this one in Marquette County—now recognized for their importance to wildlife, people, the environment and the economy—have been lost over the last two centuries.

By Casey Warner, Michigan Department of Natural Resources

Michigan regularly ranks in the top three states for Canada goose harvest and hunters in the nation. The sport, and other outdoor recreation pursuits, requires healthy wetland habitat.

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.

Every amphibian in Michigan—including the state’s largest frog, the bullfrog—uses wetlands.

“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.

Home to a wide variety of birds, including the secretive sora, Michigan’s wetlands make great wildlife viewing destinations.

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.

Wetlands are a significant factor in the health and existence of Michigan’s other natural resources, such as inland lakes, groundwater, fisheries, wildlife and the Great Lakes.

Wetlands are “like nature’s kidneys,” Avers said, in that they filter pollutants from surface runoff, trapping fertilizers, pesticides, sediments and other contaminants, helping to break some of them down into less harmful substances, improving water clarity and quality.

They also replenish surface and underground drinking water sources.

“Wetland soils help to filter pollutants and excess nutrients out of the water to create a cleaner water supply for all of us,” said Holly Vaughn, DNR wildlife communications coordinator. “They also provide important flood control, acting like sponges to soak up extra rain and storm water.”

Wetlands are vital to Michigan’s wildlife as well. Acre for acre, they produce more wildlife and plants than any other Michigan habitat type.

“About 25 percent of mammals, 50 percent of birds, nearly all reptiles, and every amphibian in Michigan use wetlands,” said Avers.

Avers added that, although wetlands make up only 5 percent of the area of the contiguous U.S., more than a third of threatened and endangered species live only in wetlands.

“Wetlands provide excellent benefits to wildlife, including important migratory stopover habitat for waterfowl and migratory songbirds too,” Vaughn said.

While many wildlife species find homes in Michigan’s wetlands, many people find recreation destinations there.

This includes waterfowl hunting—Michigan  regularly ranks in the top three states for Canada goose harvest and hunters in the nation, and in the top 10 for average annual sales of federal duck stamps—and a variety of other outdoor pursuits.

“Michigan has exceptional wetland recreation opportunities,” Vaughn said. “Among the best of them, our Wetland Wonders (the DNR’s managed waterfowl areas) offer great waterfowl hunting, wildlife viewing, trapping, hiking, fishing and boating.”

Those recreation opportunities lead to significant economic impact.

“Wetlands are important for the state’s economy,” said Avers. “Waterfowl hunting trips, which take place largely in wetland areas, generate $22 million each year in Michigan. Fish, wildlife and recreational activities related to Michigan’s coastal wetlands generate $52 million annually.”

Avers added that renowned waterfowl and coastal wetland areas like Saginaw Bay, St. Clair Flats and the Detroit River have built and supported local economies and communities with industries such as duck decoys, boats and hunting clubs.

“Great Lakes coastal wetlands are highly productive and rare ecosystems, and are widely recognized as vital to the overall Great Lakes ecosystem, providing habitat for migratory waterfowl, wading birds, sport and forage fish, amphibians and reptiles, and many other native wildlife,” said Anne Garwood, DEQ Great Lakes coastal wetland ecologist. “In some parts of the state, where up to 90 percent of Michigan’s coastal wetlands have been lost, the protection and restoration of coastal wetlands is especially critical.”

Although now recognized for their importance to wildlife, people, the environment and the economy – and with laws in place that have helped slow their loss – wetlands still face threats.

These threats include invasive species, climate change and declining Great Lakes water levels, and demand for development on existing wetlands.

“More than 50 percent of Michigan’s historic wetland base has been lost, and the rate of wetland loss in key waterfowl landscapes exceeds 90 percent,” said Avers. “We need to do more to conserve Michigan’s wetlands and our great waterfowl heritage.”

The DNR, along with many other organizations, has undertaken efforts to conserve and restore wetlands in Michigan.

Take, for example, Michigan’s Wetland Wonders, the seven premier managed waterfowl hunt areas in the state, scattered across the southern Lower Peninsula.

The DNR created these areas in the 1960s to generate exceptional waterfowl hunting opportunities and still manages them today to provide habitat for waterfowl and other species of wetlands wildlife.

But Michigan’s wetlands successes don’t end there.

“We’ve been very successful across Michigan in protecting and restoring wetland habitat, primarily driven by partnerships with other organizations,” said Avers. “Our best success story is the collection of North American Wetland Conservation Act grants that we’ve received.”

The North American Wetland Conservation Act program, which began in 1989, supports on-the-ground wetland conservation efforts by providing matching grants for projects in the United States, Canada and Mexico.

In Michigan, the 50 NAWCA projects either completed or under way have conserved a total of 56,762 acres of wildlife habitat. The program’s funding of more than $18 million has stimulated partner contributions of more than $62 million for Michigan wetlands conservation.

Recently the DNR has partnered with the Michigan Municipal Wetland Alliance on a new wetland mitigation banking program that will preserve and restore wetland habitat on public lands to offset unavoidable impacts to existing wetlands. Look for a future “Showcasing the DNR” story about this effort.

While there is still much work to do on the wetlands conservation front, Michigan has come a long way from the days of treating these vital assets as godforsaken swamps.

To learn more about Michigan wetlands, visit michigan.gov/wetlands


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$200,000 grant will help restore wetlands


The 50-acre conservation easement will protect lakes and emergent wetlands in the watershed from development. Nelson Lake, just off Division, and east of Sparta, is one of the lakes in the conservation easement. Photo Credit: Pete DeBoer

The 50-acre conservation easement will protect lakes and emergent wetlands in the watershed from development. Nelson Lake, just off Division, and east of Sparta, is one of the lakes in the conservation easement. Photo Credit: Pete DeBoer

Cedar Springs and Sparta to benefit

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality recently announced more than $4.3 million in grants to protect Michigan lakes and streams from pollution, and a group working on projects in Cedar Springs and Sparta received a portion of it.

Trout Unlimited received $239,449 to restore wetlands, and to protect a 50-acre property with a permanent conservation easement in the Rogue River watershed, as part of the Rogue River Home Rivers Initiative project. The City of Cedar Springs and the Cedar Springs Community Building Development Team has contributed $22,000 to this project. Additional project partners include the Land Conservancy of West Michigan, SouthPeat Environmental LLC, the Rogue River Watershed Partners, and the Kent County Drain Commissioner Office.

Specific wetland activities include restoring approximately 5 acres of wetlands in the Cedar Springs and Sparta area. Two wetlands will be restored in Cedar Springs, both on City of Cedar Springs property. One is a half acre by the fire barn, where the new library will built (between the firebarn and Cedar Creek) and two acres at North Park, just east off of Main Street (between Oak Street and Cedar Springs Mobile Estates).

Two wetlands will also be restored in the Sparta area—one acre on the corner of M37 and Main St, and 1.5 acres off of Phelps, on private property.

Once restored, these sites will play a huge role in reducing sediment in Cedar and Nash Creeks and helping to stabilize water temperature by controlling stormwater runoff.  In addition, identification and prioritization of historically lost wetlands will be done and potential wetland restoration areas in the entire watershed will be quantified for future projects.

A second portion of the project is the completion of a conservation easement, permanently protecting approximately 50 acres in the watershed. The 50-acre conservation easement is located just east of Sparta, off of Division, on private property.

This property is directly adjacent to 124 acres of permanently protected land. The area just outside of the property is experiencing development pressure. The conservation easement will eliminate all development in this area, as well as provide buffer zones to the waterways and wetland areas.

These grants will help restore impaired waters and protect high-quality waters by reducing nonpoint sources of sediment, nutrients and other contaminants. Nonpoint source pollution is runoff that picks up both natural and human contaminants as it moves across the ground and eventually deposits it into waterways.

This two year project will begin in October 2016 and will be part of the current Trout Unlimited Rogue River Home Rivers Initiative project. This project is a multi-year collaborative watershed restoration project. Local foundations, businesses and other donors have contributed funds towards the Rogue River Home Rivers Initiative project. The City of Cedar Springs and the Cedar Springs Community Building Development Team has contributed $22,000 to this project. Additional project partners include the Land Conservancy of West Michigan, SouthPeat Environmental LLC, the Rogue River Watershed Partners, and the Kent County Drain Commissioner Office.

A Trout Unlimited Project Manager and Project Coordinator work to improve existing river conditions through restoration actions, work with local governments to improve municipal planning, and increase capacity to help ensure advocates for long-term protection of the Rogue.

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Rob Vander Zee’s ArtPrize

Rob VanderZee’s entry into ArtPrize.

Rob VanderZee’s entry into ArtPrize.

By Ranger Steve Mueller


Rob Vander Zee, talented young man, was seeking an art project while in high school and has now displayed in Artprize 2013. When I was developing a wetland learning station at the Howard Christensen Nature Center in the 1980’s, it was fortunate that Rob connected with us. I explained a wetlands vision and gave him an image. From there he created the artwork mural that still draws youth and visitors to think about wetlands. Please visit HCNC and become a member.

I gave Rob a picture of a beaver pond and he painted a wonderful realistic rendition. The work entices viewers to think about the world we live in. Rob is at native of Cedar Springs and his work helps people think about the future.

Wetlands are major contributors to Michigan’s recreation economy.  They are economically valuable assets that filter toxics from water, reduce flood damage, are major food producers, and provide desirable sites for human habitation. Wetlands modify weather conditions and determine the depth of ground water tables that recharge city and private wells.  Water moves from wetlands to ground water and vice-versa.  How we handle sewage, fertilizers, pesticides, and toxic substance disposal are important community health issues that are constantly in debate. Safe drinking water is taken for granted and there are those that want to reduce community efforts to protect water quality by reducing government programs protecting our health and the environment.

In the 1970’s we passed the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Endangered Species. These programs have helped restore conditions that improve our quality of life. Those protections are being challenged to reduce taxes. People forget the pollution costs were more expensive and damaging to health than the preventive tax programs. Saving tax dollars spurs efforts to reduce government programs but at what cost? They may not be perfect but the programs protect our economy, health and quality of life. Rob’s art work hopes to engage people to think about the future and I hope my articles do the same.

When we bought Ody Brook property in 1979, the home plumbing from the toilet went into a 55-gallon drum that had rusted away and other water was piped directly to the Little Cedar Creek. We installed a proper septic system and drain field. It was not until 1976 that government regulations changed construction codes to meet the Clean Water Act and provide environmental protection. We recently added five acres to Ody Brook that has an existing home. That home’s plumbing ran to the Little Cedar Creek without a septic drain field. The home construction predated the 1970’s Clean Water Act tax legislation. We recently installed a proper septic system to protect the stream, wetlands, and water quality for Cedar Springs human and wildlife neighbors.

How many homes still have systems that pollute water quality, fishing, health, and damage our community’s economy and quality of life? The current budget battle in Washington is wrestling with what is needed to maintain a high quality of life in Cedar Springs. That brings us back to Rob Vander Zee’s art.

Rob painted a mural for ArtPrize called Michigan Forest: The Future of Genetic Manipulation on an Eco System. He comments his artwork is open for interpretation. He wants people to think about society actions. His work displays possibilities for the future. He wants viewers to contemplate nature niches and our role as participants in the ecosystem. I hope many of you viewed his work. If not, view and read his comments about the painting at: www.artprize.org/rob-vander-zee.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at the odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433.


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Get paid for restoring wetlands

Did you know that restoring wetlands on your property can put cash in your pocket?

The Rogue River Watershed Council and Trout Unlimited, Inc., in partnership with Timberland RC&D, the Kent Conservation District, the Izaak Walton League, and the Department of Environmental Quality, is hosting a free wetland workshop for landowners at the Rockford Sportsman’s Club on Monday, March 28, at 6:30 p.m.  The workshop will highlight programs that assist private landowners to restore historic wetlands on their properties. Landowners that meet federal requirements may be eligible for wetland restoration payments that pay between $2,000-$5,000 per acre in Kent, Newaygo, and Ottawa Counties.

At the workshop you will hear from leading wetland experts including representatives from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Wetlands provide ecological, economic and social benefits. They provide habitat for fish, wildlife and a variety of plants. Wetlands are also important landscape features because they hold and slowly release floodwater and snow melt and recharge groundwater.  This combined action of slowing and storing water reduces flooding downstream and shoreline erosion. Flooding and high flows in local rivers are becoming worse with increased development, which adds impervious surfaces, such as driveways and roads, which do not absorb rainfall.

Wetlands also act as filters to cleanse water of impurities, such as sediment and nutrients.  Nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus contribute a large amount of pollution to Michigan’s lakes river and streams. Excess nutrients contribute to increased algae growth, which reduces the amount of oxygen in the water. Wetlands can filter out as much as 91 percent of the phosphorus and 86 percent of the nitrogen.  Sediment (soil particles) is the leading non-point source pollutant in Michigan’s lakes, rivers and streams. Sediments that are suspended in running water can also be removed by wetlands. As the running water enters a wetland, the water slows and the sediments settle out. Some wetlands can retain as much as 94 percent of this sediment.
If you have an interest in restoring wetland habitat on your property, and would like to attend this workshop, please RSVP by March 21 to Nichol De Mol at ndemol@tu.org or 231-557-6362.

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