Why Do Wetlands Matter?

The calls of red-winged blackbirds are returning to Northern Michigan just as our cattail marshes, their preferred nesting habitat, swell with snowmelt. Soon their sunset songs will be joined by a chorus of all kinds of frogs and buzzing insects, drawn to the same wetlands for the very same reasons: to breed, lay eggs and contribute more vitality to these places already teeming with life.

There’s a reason NASA’s Perseverance rover is currently cruising an ancient Martian river delta. In a search for evidence of life, the best way to find it — whether here or on our neighboring planet — is to follow the water.

Our world is so rich with water that it shines as a pale blue dot in the Martian night sky. Even so, wetlands support a disproportionate amount of life on Earth. And it’s not just the quantity of plants and animals thriving in Northern Michigan’s wetlands that’s significant but also the variety of those species, from meat-eating flora like sundew and pitcher plants, to rare species like Voss’ goldenrod, Hine’s emerald dragonfly, eastern massasauga rattlesnake and Blanding’s turtle. For supporting rare, threatened and diverse species, wetlands matter.

Posen High School students explore a unique coastal wetland, called a fen, at Thompson’s Harbor State Park in the fall of 2020.

Coastal wetlands are also able to buffer the effects of more extreme weather events and lake levels. The deep root systems of native plants protect shorelines from wind and wave erosion. For resilience to change, wetlands matter.

“Species diversity and having large, connected natural areas really boosts a region’s ability to respond to disturbances like storms, land use changes and future climate conditions,” said Samantha Nellis, Water Program Director for Huron Pines, “because the more diverse areas are better able to bounce back.”

A boardwalk traverses a wetland area at Cheboygan’s Duncan Bay Preserve.

Nellis leads Huron Pines’ support of green infrastructure projects in communities along the Lake Huron coast where wetlands can be one solution to the issue of stormwater runoff. Heavy rainstorms or sudden spring thaws can send surges of runoff into rivers and lakes, carrying along harmful pollutants like road salt, motor oil and sediment. Protected natural wetlands like those found along Cheboygan’s Duncan Bay, a Little Traverse Conservancy preserve supported by Huron Pines, capture and filter stormwater on a large scale. Even small restored wetland areas or manmade bioswales — low areas with good drainage planted with native wetland vegetation — can all play a role in a city’s stormwater solutions. For supporting water quality, wetlands matter.

“They’re the kidneys of a watershed,” Nellis said. “They hold and filter water like a big sponge. Around the Great Lakes, there’s only 50 percent of wetlands remaining from pre-settlement times, so restoring wetlands and protecting the ones that remain is something we really want to be involved in.”

Logan Hawley is Coastal Restoration Team Lead for Huron Pines, whose projects this year will focus on the treatment and removal of invasive species in six counties along the northern Lake Huron coast. Among these project sites is Tuttle Marsh, a 5,000-acre wetland area southwest of Oscoda managed by Huron-Manistee National Forests as a popular stopover for both migratory birds and bird watchers.

Like Nellis, Hawley uses the sponge analogy to describe wetlands, his area of interest since college. His stewardship work this year will help ensure places like Tuttle Marsh continue to serve their purpose, not just for waterfowl but for the landscape as a whole.

“Wetlands hold water and nutrients for those times the environment lacks abundance in either,” he said. “In this way, they help secure not only their own future but also that of the surrounding upland areas.”

For securing our future, wetlands matter.

The public is invited to help secure a better future for Lake Huron by participating in a volunteer tree-planting event at Herman Vogler Recreation Area in Rogers City May 1. Details and RSVPs can be found here.

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