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Why Are Wetlands Important?

March 1, 1997 | By Hans Voss
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Wetlands are North America's most productive habitat. They also serve vital ecological functions, which now are recognized as having significant economic value. These include:

*Controlling sediment and cleansing water. Wetlands are living filters. They trap and break down harmful pollutants, and reduce the amount of sediment that flows into lakes, rivers, and streams. The loss of wetlands diminishes this cleansing capability, which affects water quality throughout a watershed.

*Serving as a barrier to waves and erosion. Wetland plants stabilize soil with their root systems, and buffer waves that cause erosion. By maintaining and planting wetland vegetation in water and on the shoreline, riparian landowners can help prevent erosion and protect the value of their property.

*Flood prevention. Wetlands act as a sponge, absorbing and dispersing water. If wetlands are filled, this storage capacity is lost. Flooding in parts of northern Michigan and elsewhere in the country has worsened as a result of wetland loss.

*Protecting fresh water. Wetlands often are fed by springs and seeps that eventually replenish lakes, rivers, and streams with high quality water.

*Providing habitat for fish and wildlife. Some species live their entire lives in wetlands. Others use them from time to time. Wetlands serve as critical habitat, providing shelter, food, and space for countless fish, birds, amphibians, and mammals. More than one third of the threatened and endangered animals in the United States live in or depend on wetlands.

*Hunting and Fishing. Sport fish and most game animals need wetlands for their survival. For example, in northern Michigan white-tail deer depend on cedar swamps for winter food and cover. Wetlands provide essential spawning grounds for fish. Loss of shoreline wetlands can directly contribute to the decline of fish populations.

*Food and Fiber Production. Wetlands provide a variety of natural products, such as cranberries and wild rice. With proper care, small scale cultivation and harvesting can occur without degrading the wetlands.

*Historic, Archaeological, and Scientific Research. The breakdown of organic material is notably slowed in wetlands. This preserves early artifacts and the remains of prehistoric animals and plants, and reveals the earth's climatic and environmental past.

*Education and Recreation. Because wetlands are such varied ecosystems, they are ideal outdoor classrooms. The great variety of plants and animals located in wetlands and their often secluded locations make them beautiful places for introspection and recreation.

Benzie County's Wetlands, Richly Diverse

Anyone who has tramped through Benzie County's forests or spent time along the banks of its many rivers and lakes knows that the County is blessed with a variety of healthy wetland systems.

Here are some descriptions of the diversity found among Benzie County's 34,000 acres of wetlands:

Betsie River and Betsie Lake Wetlands

The Betsie River flows westerly across the entire width of Benzie County, draining into the Betsie Lake and Lake Michigan.

*The headwaters of the Betsie near Interlochen include Grass Lake, which was created in 1951 when the Department of Natural Resources built a dam to flood the area to enhance waterfowl habitat. Grass Lake now supports a 1,100-acre emergent swamp dominated by sedge and cattails. The wetland provides nesting and migration resting sites for ducks, swans, osprey, herons, and other birds.

*Around Thompsonville the Betsie River wetland system is dominated by red maple, ash, and red elm. The soil in this type of wetland, known as a northern hardwood swamp, can be saturated in the spring from rain and snowmelt but sometimes dries up over the summer months. During dry seasons these areas can resemble an upland forests, which make it important that these wetlands are carefully inventoried on a site-specific basis.

*The wetland systems along the middle section of the Betsie River consist predominantly of mixed hardwood and conifer wetlands. Damage to stream banks, which causes soil erosion, began during the timber boom a century ago and continues now from road construction and residential development. Wetlands along this part of the Betsie help to stabilize the banks and provide excellent habitat for small mammals like pine marten, mink, and muskrat.

*The lower section of the Betsie River near Elberta and Betsie Lake is characterized by shrub wetlands that progress into a large emergent marsh. A significant portion of this section is designated as a state game area, where a number of species are found.

Crystal Lake Wetlands

Crystal Lake, Benzie County's largest and best-known lake, has an unusually small watershed - only 22 square miles. Thus, Crystal Lake is particularly susceptible to pollutants and runoff.

The majority of the Crystal Lake watershed is east of Beulah, where branches of Cold Creek converge and form the primary inlet to the lake. During the last century, this area has been significantly altered by agriculture, road construction, residential and commercial development, and septic systems. Conservation of the remaining wetlands in the watershed is critical to the protection of the water quality of Crystal Lake.

Recognizing the importance of wetlands on the lake's east end, the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy acquired a former vegetable farm in 1991. Now known as the Trapp Farm Nature Preserve, the 115-acre natural area includes valuable wetlands that protect Cold Creek and Crystal Lake. The public can enjoy the hiking trails there by entering the preserve from Narrow Gauge Road, about 1/4-mile east of US-31 in Beulah.

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