On May 25, 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision in Sackett v. EPA to dramatically weaken the Clean Water Act. This decision departed from 45 years of precedence, overturned a previous Supreme Court decision and ignored the text of the Clean Water Act.
Writing for the 5-to-4 majority, Justice Samuel Alito asserted that any wetland that does not connect at its surface to another body of federally protected water doesn’t merit protection. However, per water experts, “The notion that the law can’t protect a body of water, simply because there’s a road between it and another body of water that is unquestionably protected, is absurd and unscientific.” Water flows in all sorts of ways: above- and belowground, rapidly down rivers and streams and slowly through the cleansing filters of the reeds, soils and grasses that make up a wetland.
This decision reduced protected waters in the US by over 50 percent, including removing protections for seasonal rivers in America’s deserts, which can now be decimated by mining operations.
Angst over this court ruling inspired me to read Annie Proulx’s 2022 book “Fen, Bog and Swamp: A Short History of Peatland Destruction and Its Role in the Climate Crisis.” Proulx has been one of my favorite writers of fiction for years, and I looked forward to her study on wetlands. Proulx wrote this book to determine “what meaning did these peatlands have, not only for humans, but for all other life on the earth?”
I began the book without understanding the differences among fens, bogs or swamps. Now, I can say with confidence, a fen is “a peat-forming wetland that is at least partly fed by waters that have contact with mineral soils, such as rivers and streams.” Fens tend to be deep. A bog is “a peat-making wetland with a water source that is not in contact with mineral soil,” such as rainfall. A swamp is “a peat-forming wetland that can support shrubs and trees — even forests.” Bogs and swamps are shallower than fens.
So, why are wetlands important? Throughout the world, wetlands are highly productive ecosystems, comparable to rainforests and coral reefs. By regulating water flow, wetlands dramatically lessen the impact of both floods and droughts in surrounding areas. They provide habitats for all manner of fish, birds, mammals, insects, reptiles and amphibians. And they do all of these things while storing massive amounts of carbon in abundant vegetation, making safeguarding wetlands a valuable natural climate solution.
Proulx writes that “the history of wetlands is the history of their destruction.” Over the past centuries, humans have strived to eliminate fens, bogs and swamps. Regarding fens, Proulx focuses on England: “The persistent and fatal draining of the English fens over three hundred years is an example of how key parts of an ancient natural countryside were gradually but deliberately engineered out of existence.” English fens were a place of rich diversity. “Today less than 1 percent of the original fens remain.”
Proulx gives a geographic tour of wetland destruction and describes a common scenario that “has been repeated the world over: Swathes of fen, bog or swamp are deemed too wet for agriculture and the cry goes up that for the public good it must be drained. But the new lands then usually became the property of developers and big agriculturists or ranchers — public good neatly sidestepped.”
She describes how wetlands were destroyed in America over the past centuries. Unfortunately, the recent Supreme Court ruling will add to this decimation. Wetland destruction comes in many forms, including “sediment deposition patterns, fertilizer runoff, spilled and leaking chemicals, increasing floods, storms, droughts, fires and today’s rising sea level.”
When wetlands are destroyed, so too are the multitude of living creatures within them. Proulx writes, “In the last fifty years more than half of the bird, mammal and amphibian population have dwindled into memory or teeter on the edge of the extinction cliff.”
Proulx’s global tour of wetland ruination continues, including in Brazil, where wetlands are under “massive attack on three fronts,” including authorized and criminal deforestation; degradation that comes with road construction, cattle ranching and large-scale agriculture; and increasing drought and heat from climate change. “The Amazon is now emitting more CO2 than it sequesters.” Australia’s 2020 drought-caused fires resulted in over one billion animals being killed.
To the north, the warming of the Arctics’ frozen wetlands is releasing copious amounts of methane. “Methane is eighty times more powerful than carbon dioxide in its ability to push the warming of the world.” With global warming, “greenhouse gases long held below the surface are escaping, adding exponentially to the crisis by creating a positive climate feedback,” which is already looking to be irreversible.
“Fen, Bog and Swamp” includes many tangents. In her chapter on bogs, Proulx describes how human bodies can be preserved in them. Proulx also chronicles Roman artifacts preserved in bogs and springboards from this to stories about Roman battles. Proulx provides the history of multiple swamps, including the most famous swamp in America: the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia and North Carolina. Proulx also describes the Great Black Swamp “that covered much of Ohio and parts of Michigan and Indiana” and was drained for farming.
Proulx explains how mangrove swamps are one of the most important ecosystems “because they form a bristling wall that stabilizes land’s edge and protects shorelines from hurricanes and erosion.” Proulx writes how “climate researchers see mangrove swamps as crucially important front-line defenses against rising seawater and as superior absorbers of CO2, five times more efficient than tropical forests.” Yet, mangrove swamps are in deep trouble and seeing a “slow death” around the world.
As far as ideas on how to reverse wetland-destruction trends, Proulx doesn’t offer a lot of hope, writing, “humans are exceedingly good at construction and destruction but pitifully inadequate at restoring the natural world. It’s just not our thing.” However, Proulx does report on how the idea of the “rights of nature” is gaining international standing as a legal concept.
The first chapter of “Fen, Bog and Swamp” is titled “Discursive Thoughts on Wetlands.” Unfortunately, I thought that this title accurately fit the entire book, with Proulx rambling on many tangents, some interesting, some not. Sadly, I was a little disappointed. But I still love Proulx as one of my all-time favorite fiction writers.
Dave Gamrath is a longtime community activist in Seattle.
Read more of the July 19-25, 2023 issue.