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July 30, 2014
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Of frogs and men

At the two most recent Upper Delaware Council (UDC) meetings, some new wetlands mapping that the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has done in the Wallkill watershed—mostly in Orange County, but some in Sullivan—has come under fire. The mapping would increase the amount of designated New York State wetland, subject to DEC jurisdiction, by about 16,000 acres in that watershed.

It is not yet known whether the DEC will even adopt the new mapping, but outrage was expressed at the meetings that so much land could potentially become difficult or impossible to develop, and the impact of that fact on property values and tax rolls. To the extent that some affected wetlands may lie in the Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational river corridor, it was decided that the issue is a matter of concern for the UDC; and the council took up a suggestion by Bill Rudge, the council’s DEC representative, to arrange for a briefing on the subject.

We think the fact that rural landowners frequently take the full financial hit for stewardship of the ecological services from which everyone benefits is unfair and needs to be addressed. We don’t, however, think it’s the primary business of the UDC. The council’s main focus, surely, is the preservation of the quality and quantity of the water in the river and the condition of its banks. And in that regard, the preservation of wetlands—not just in the river corridor, but in the headwater areas of the river’s tributaries—is a huge plus.

In arguing against the expansion of designated wetlands, one councilmember noted that people are more important than frogs. The problem is that an environment in which frogs can’t survive is one in which people’s survival is threatened as well.

For instance, wetlands are indispensable to flood protection. Take a look at the Mississippi: according to the Environmental Protection Agency, that river’s wetlands once were ample enough to hold 60 days of floodwater, and now hold only 12. New Orleans has been perhaps the chief casualty of this fact, but by no means the only one; many Mississippi River communities suffer catastrophic flooding again and again. We have a chance to be more provident here.

People die in floods. How much are those lives worth? And even in purely financial terms, millions of dollars worth of property are lost to flooding in the Delaware River basin virtually every year.

Also remember that the inverse of flooding is groundwater recharge: water having time to settle into the aquifer rather than rushing over the land’s surface and out to the sea. As climate change leads to more severe and extreme weather events, from downpours to droughts, both of these services have become more essential than ever before—to humans, not just frogs.

Wetlands are also essential to pollution control. They trap sediments, trap and break down pollutants and recycle nutrients. And these benefits are generally provided to larger downstream bodies of water even when no surface connection is apparent, via groundwater.

It is these considerations that are surely the primary province of the UDC.

That said, we also think that somebody or other needs to take another look at how the cost of stewardship of resources like forests and wetlands is being distributed throughout society. In the current system, it’s handled through property taxes—which means that though individual landowners who preserve forest or wetland may receive some monetary offset in the form of tax reduction, the rural area in which they live does not, with the burden merely shifted onto their neighbors’ shoulders. Nor does the offset necessarily compensate them fully for the loss of financial value. Meanwhile, it is frequently the downstream urban and suburban areas that benefit most. In our overpopulated, over-polluted world, to say that properties with wetlands on them are less valuable is lunacy; they are, in fact, just about the most valuable real estate on the planet. We just need to find a way to make dollar flow reflect that.

Society needs to make a major shift in how it values natural resources, building the costs of depleting them and the rewards for preserving them into actual financial transactions, and seeing to it that all who benefit pay to maintain them. It’s a problem that needs to be addressed at the state, national and even international level, and perhaps we should be writing to our representatives about doing just that.

But the UDC’s business is the river. And for the river and the health of the species, including homo sapiens, that rely on it, wetlands protection is absolutely essential. [See related story on page 4].