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Nation's wetlands continue to disappear

October 7, 2011 |  5:03 pm

Wetlands

Wetlands in the U.S. are still disappearing, although at a slower pace than two decades ago.

A national wetlands inventory released this week by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that between 2004 and 2009, the lower 48 states lost a net average of 13,800 acres a year. That compared with a slight annual gain in wetlands during the previous six year-period.

The lower Mississippi River region and the coastal plains of the Southeast suffered the greatest declines, which the report attributed to development, drainage for the establishment of tree plantations and hurricane damage.

Rising seas associated with climate change are also taking a toll on the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coastlines. Effectsof the BP oil spill were not included in the survey, which ended before the Deepwater Horizon explosion.

“Wetlands are at a tipping point,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said. “While we have made great strides in conserving and restoring wetlands since the 1950s, when we were losing an area equal to half the size of Rhode Island each year, we remain on a downward trend that is alarming."

In calculating acreage, the fish and wildlife agency took into account wetlands established through farm conservation and other programs. But the report notes that a large portion of those new wetlands consist of freshwater ponds, which some scientific studies have concluded don't provide the same ecological services as natural wetlands.     

The lower 48 states have an estimated 110 million acres of wetlands, 95% of them freshwater, according to the inventory, which was based on aerial surveys and some field sampling for verification.

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-- Bettina Boxall

Photo: A bird takes off in the wetlands of Grand Isle, La. Credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times

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