About 100 years ago there were approximately 5 million acres of
wetlands in North Dakota.
Today there are about 2 million acres. And, until recent programs
were put into place, the rate of wetland loss was 20,000 acres each
year. Much of that acreage was converted to productive farmland,
although a portion also went toward urban development.
Nationally, a 1987 report revealed that half a million acres of
wetlands are destroyed annually; and, since colonial times, more
than half of this country's wetlands have disappeared.
Additionally, soil erosion, water quality degradation, siltation,
chemical contamination and salinization have hampered the quality
of some remaining wetlands.
The issue of wetlands preservation gained national attention this
year when President Bush publicly endorsed a national "No Net Loss"
policy, whereby new wetlands replace existing ones that are destroyed
for urban or agricultural benefit.
But two years before the president took up the issue, North Dakota
became the first and only state to adopt its own no net loss policy.
Additionally, Congress got involved recently by passing the so-called
Swampbuster legislation, which strictly regulates wetland use.
The issue of wetland management has long simmered on North Dakota
prairies, and it is only in recent years that groups on both sides
of the issue have been able to sit down together and work toward
a solution, officials say. The controversy has taken on greater
importance in recent years as state officials juggle the dual concern
of disappearing wetlands and a struggling ag economythe state's
Meetings within the past few years may have been the first time
in the state's history that both sides have sat at the same table,
according to Lloyd Jones, commissioner of the state's Game and Fish
Departmentand he's been involved with that issue for 17 years.
Some officials hope the new sense of cooperation, however fragile,
will become a story of environmental and economic cooperationrather
than the typical story of confrontation.
"We're well on our way," Jones said. "The system is in place now
In the past, many farmers and developers may have regarded wetlands
as worthless sloughs or rain-catchers that got in the way of profitable
farmland or valuable developments. Today, while some may still hold
that opinion, they are undoubtedly more aware of wetlands' function
in the environment.
"Wetlands are the most important ecosystem on the prairie," Jones
said. "They play a very, very integral role."
Wetlands recharge groundwater supplies, improve water quality
by trapping pollutants and slowing erosion, send moisture back into
the air for needed rain and provide flood control. Also, they are
the prairies' most complicated ecosystem, providing life for plants,
insects, birds and wildlife that otherwise would not exist on the
harsh land. As such, they also provide recreational and educational
uses for humans.
Perhaps the wetlands' most visible role is to provide waterfowl
habitat; and, as the quantity and quality of wetlands has declined,
so has the waterfowl population. In the early 1970s the fall migratory
flight included about 100 million ducks. Last year there were about
"In the past there has been a lot of controversy and conflicts,"
Jones said of the relationship between environmental and agricultural
groups on the issue of wetland management. "The two forces were
becoming deadlocked. It was an overall bad situation."
Mike Dyer, executive director of the North Dakota Water Users
Association, agrees with that assessment. But he also shares Jones'
optimism for the future, adding that both groups have come a long
way to accommodating mutual objectives.
"We think the two sides can be compatible," Dyer said. "It's not
an either/or situation."
The Water Users Association, with 1,200 mostly business-related
members including farmersadheres to the no net loss
principle, Dyer said. While the group is willing to work with environmentalists,
he said some groups continue "to be a thorn in our side."
Environmental groups have to realize, he said, that you can't
come to the table to compromise, and then simultaneously file lawsuits.
There has to be give and take, he said.
Dyer said many farmers have shifted their position in recent years,
adhering more to the principles of strict wetland management.
But not all farmers.
For example, Wes Tossett of Lansford, N.D., and about 200 other
farmers banded together this year to form the North Dakota Landowners
Association, a group that believes Congress did not intend Swampbuster
to have such strict provisions on all types of wetlands and is working
to change the law.
Swampbuster prohibits use of all wetlands (labeled as Types 1
through 4), even those that are wet for brief periods in the springa
crucial time for farmers who are planting their summer crops.
"I realize the value of wetlands. The farmers were the first environmentalists
and the first conservationists," Tossett said. "But I don't want
to be called an environmentalist anymore."
Tossett said there is a lot of resentment among farmers for the
way the wetlands issues have been decided. He said he hopes to get
about 2,000 landowners involved in the Landowners Association.
"The people in Bismarck, Minneapolis, Denver and Washington figure
we're a bunch of mute serfs out here," he said. "We've paid for
this land with our blood, sweat, oil and tears. And now we're being
stabbed in the back."
Pretty soon, Tossett said, farmers will be told they can't spray
chemicals on or near the wetlandsa nearly impossible tactic
since many of the wetlands are hard to notice through much of the
"You can think of all kinds of things sitting in your venetian-blind,
air- conditioned office, but you get out here and it's reality.
It's a constant battle with Mother Nature," said Tossett, who's
been farming for 35 years and currently works about 3,000 acres.
Sometimes wetlands can be the most productive areas on a farm,
Tossett said, and in years when crops are already suffering from
lack of moisture, wetlands can provide most of a farmer's earned
While the protests of Tossett and like-minded landowners will
keep the wetlands issue alive for years to come, such protests won't
likely dampen Jones' sense of optimism, or urgency. "It's a very
critical situation," Jones said of the declining wetland acreage,
especially following two straight years of low moisture.
"We may have lost too many [wetlands] already," Jones said. "Water
is the basis of life, including human lifenot just quantity,
but quality of water."