One thing always leads to another, often in unpredictable ways. For example, it’s a long-held and persistent interest in the environment – what sustains us on earth – that has led me on a lot of “learning journeys,” including the one that ignited my fascination with the endangered whooping cranes, and the stories about the species’ reintroduction into Wisconsin. And it’s that interest in the whooping cranes in Wisconsin – how they’re doing here, why they’re here, what their habitat needs are, and why our state was chosen as the northern terminus of the re-introduction – that constantly leads me down new avenues of appreciation for the gifts of the natural world that bless Wisconsin. Like wetlands.
“Until recently, wetlands were often viewed as wastelands,” according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, “useful only when drained or filled.” But now we know better.
“Wetlands Benefit People and Nature,” the DNR proclaims, listing what we know and celebrate about wetlands: that these unexpectedly special places “are nurseries for fish and wildlife, purifiers for lakes, rivers, and groundwater, and storage for floodwaters. They’re also playgrounds for birders, hikers, hunters, and paddlers, and a storehouse for carbon.”
A statewide advocacy group, the Wisconsin Wetlands Association (WWA) cites yet another benefit: “Wetlands protect our shorelines” – so important in tourism-conscious Wisconsin. Both the DNR, and the WWA offer wonderful resources for online learning about wetlands.
Each site has multiple pages and each page includes multiple links to more pages of information and yes, even more links. There are literally dozens of ways to begin learning about wetlands! Where to start depends on what you want to do or learn. Do you want to explore wetlands, or learn how to identify them? Do you own property with some wetland? Do you want to protect a wetland, or restore one? I wanted some basic information – a definition of wetlands, and descriptions of them, and some historical context for wetlands in Wisconsin. And I wanted to explore some wetlands in the real world, too. A wetland, as defined by the Wisconsin State Legislature in 1978, “is an area where water is at, near, or above the land surface long enough to be capable of supporting aquatic or hydrophytic (water-loving) vegetation and which has soils indicative of wet conditions.”
Types of wetlands, and their descriptions, are far more varied than the simple terms “marshes” and “swamps” that first come to mind. The WWA describes 12 different types of wetland communities that are found in Wisconsin, and the DNR uses nearly three times that. But let’s just look at WWA’s dozen terms. From the group’s Wetland Communities of Wisconsin page you can click to detailed descriptions of: marshes, sedge meadows, wet prairies, fens, shrub-carrs, alder thickets, floodplain forests, floodplain basins (also called ephemeral ponds), open bogs, coniferous bogs, lowland hardwood swamps and coniferous swamps. (Currently – for a quick and efficient introduction to wetland types – the Wisconsin Wetlands Association is running a 5-part series on its Facebook page, summarizing an abbreviated classification system.)
Wisconsin today has only about one half of the 10 million acres of wetlands that existed here (it’s been calculated) at the beginning of European settlement. Land surveys in the early state of Wisconsin helped identify where wetlands existed at that time, but not with accurate statistics. Soil scientists helped to provide a better estimate of the state’s pre-settlement wetland acreage.
The state completed its most current Wisconsin Wetland Inventory in 1985. This is where you can find wetlands acreage for every county in the state. Wetlands are distributed throughout the state. Each county has some, but seven of the eight counties that have the highest percentage of mapped wetlands (3% or more of the statewide total) are in the far north.
For a personal exploration of the state’s wetlands, the WWA’s 100 Wetland Gems of Wisconsin is definitely the place to start. Earlier this fall I used this guide to visit and take photos – and to see in a new way – two Door County wetland complexes that on other occasions I’ve driven right by. These gems, North Bay and Moonlight Bay, lend their names to the larger complex of swamp, sedge meadow, shrub carr, fen and marshland that comprise these extensive wetlands. Both these bays lie directly north of Bailey’s Harbor. They’re connected to the village and to each other by Door County’s scenic Highway Q. Knowing something about the many little ecological miracles that these wetland gems harbor within, makes their scenic wonders, all that more wonderful.