Volunteer group champions wetlands

By Todd Cohen

RALEIGH, N.C. — In January, in preparing a report to the state on the environmental impact of the proposed expansion in southeast Wake County of the 540 loop around Raleigh, the Southern Environmental Law Center asked the Carolina Wetlands Association to assess the impact of the proposed expansion on roughly 60 acres of wetlands it would affect.

The Association responded that it was concerned that plans for the proposed expansion would not adequately protect amphibians in the wetlands.

And in 2016, Triangle Greenways Council asked the Association to survey land the Council had purchased along the Neuse River in Wake County, identify wetlands in the area, and assess the status of the wetlands and threats to them.

Promoting the understanding, protection, restoration and enjoyment of wetlands and associated ecosystems in the Carolinas through science-based programs, education and advocacy is the mission of the Association, says Rick Savage, its president.

Operating with an annual budget of only $3,000, the all-volunteer organization was formed in 2015 after the administration of former Gov. Pat McCrory returned to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency funding from several grants the state had received to support wetlands research in the Division of Water Quality, says Savage, whose job as a senior environmental specialist was eliminated by the decision.

From 2004 to 2009, over 80,000 acres of coastal wetlands, on average, were lost each year in the U.S., up from 60,000 acres a year the previous five years, according to a 2013 report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The Atlantic Coast alone lost nearly 112,000 acres of wetlands in the five years ended in 2009, the study said.

With its tiny budget, the Carolina Wetlands Association so far has focused on a “Wetland Treasures” campaign that each May has recognized five wetlands in the Carolinas, conducted tours of the sites and published fact sheets about them on its website.

Seven of the wetlands are in North Carolina, including Robertson Mill Pond in Wake  County, and Mason Farm Wetlands in Orange County.

The biggest threats to wetlands are development and large-scale agriculture, says Savage, who also serves as co-chair of the steering committee for the Wetland Forest Initiative, a two-year old effort that focuses on conserving, restoring and preserving wetland forests in 14 states in the southeastern U.S.

The Southeast is the most diverse ecological region in North America, Savage says.

Wetlands help preserve water quality by filtering nutrients and metals used in agriculture and development. They help limit flooding, and protect against rising sea levels, by absorbing water. They help stabilize shore lines on steams and lakes. And they help protect critical habitats.

Roughly half of endangered species in the U.S. require wetlands, Savage says, and North Carolina is home to more species of salamander than any other state.

Carolina Wetlands Association, which raises money through a year-end appeal to about 400 supporters, now is developing plans to increase its fundraising so it can hire a part-time executive director and part-time business manager and development director.

“Wetlands help make our water cleaner, prevent property damage from flooding, and provide critical habitats to species that live in wetlands,” Savage says.

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