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Wetland... it means simply land that is wet, land that is saturated with water. The fens and moors of Europe, the waterholes of the African Savannah, the bogs, marshes, ponds and wet meadows of western Washington - all of these are wetlands.

Cattails and Sitka spruce, salamanders and great blue herons, white-tailed deer and juvenile salmon - wetlands are overflowing with life. In all, some 212 species of wildlife and many species of plant life depend on western Washington's wetlands for survival.

Wetlands are not "useless swamps," as they have often been perceived, but are among the most productive ecosystems in the world. We are now learning that not only does wildlife depend on wetlands, WE DEPEND ON WETLANDS.

Wetlands at work

Wetlands do much more than provide a home for wildlife... they also keep water clean for us. Wetlands are the filters of the water cycle... the intertwining roots, leaves and fibers of the dense plant life remove sediment and pollutants from the slow-moving water. When water runs out of the wetland and returns to the stream, it is once again clean.

Wetlands are also nature's sponges. When floodwaters overflow the banks of streams and rivers, the porous soils and plants of wetlands soak up tremendous amounts of the excess water. Water then seeps slowly back into the streams to prevent downstream flooding. In times of drought, wetlands are fed by groundwater which is released into streams to keep them flowing year-round.

Wetlands and people

Since colonial times, we have filled or otherwise destroyed more than half of America's wetlands. Over 60 percent of Washington's wetlands have been lost to development. This has increased flooding, erosion, water pollution and property damage, and reduced wildlife populations.

If we don't stop filling and draining wetlands, these problems will only get worse. There are ways to repair some damaged wetlands, but there is no substitute for those that remain undisturbed.

The next time you find yourself standing on the shore of a shallow, moss-covered pond, surrounded by dense willow, cattail, or Sitka spruce, look at the diversity of life around you. A wetland is the only place you will see many of these plants and animals. In fact, their ancestors may have inhabited this wetland since the last ice age. Take a minute to realize that this wetland needs your respect to survive... and that we need wetlands.

Wetland types

  • Forested wetland: A forest floor of saturated, mucky soil. Trees found here might include Sitka spruce, Oregon ash, and cottonwoods.
  • Shrub/scrub wetland: Water saturated soil covered by dense shrubbery such as dogwood, crabapple, salmonberry, and hardhack.
  • Bog: A thick mat of sphagnum moss encircling or covering a small lake or pond containing cranberry, Labrador tea, and bog laurel. Some local bogs have been around almost 10,000 years!
  • Wet meadow: Areas that often look like soggy pastues of grasses, rushes, and sedges.
  • Marsh: The small lakes and ponds full of cattails, pond lilies, yellow iris, and many other types of plant life. Marshes that occur along the coastline are salt marshes.

Wetland words

  • Emergent: Plants with root systems submerged in water.
  • Detritus: Decaying organic debris which forms a silt-like layer on the floor of a wetland.
  • Groundwater: Water which flows underground and keeps wetlands wet and streams flowing during droughts.