Long before antimalarial drugs, draining the swamp was a literal human life saver. Sometime after Earth Day 1970, when over 90 percent of the country’s swamps had already been drained, people began to appreciate by their very rarity what swamps looked like, what lived there and how they functioned and benefited society. By 2017, “draining the swamp” has been trivialized into a meaningless electoral slogan. The usage of this phrase infuriates me, but someone inside my head is reminding me to “get over it.”
The actual swamps in New York are highly diverse and on a landscape or local scale contribute vitally to natural infrastructure benefiting our human communities and the more than human world we should aspire to live with.
For example, we learned this past year from the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Dr. Michale Glennon how important the Northern Swamp habitats on the Boreas Ponds tract are:
“The Northern Swamp type deserves special attention and consists of one habitat –Laurentian-Acadian Alkaline Conifer Hardwood Swamp – on the Boreas. This habitat comprises a significant proportion of the tract (12%, or 2,569 acres) and, similar to the boreal types described above, is also likely to harbor some of New York’s rarest avifauna including species such as gray jay and blackbacked woodpecker. Northern Swamp is distinguished in part from Northern Peatland and Fens by its richer substrate. A forested swamp of alkaline wetlands associated with limestone or other calcareous substrate, these forested wetlands are uncommon in the glaciated northeast except in areas with extensive limestone or similar substrate (Anderson et al. 2013). Across the Adirondacks, the Northern Swamp type makes up only 10% of the landscape, is less protected than the Boreal Upland Forest and Northern Peatland types, and is distributed primarily on Resource Management (27.1%) and Wild Forest (28.2%) lands, with a smaller proportion in Wilderness (16.1%; Glennon and Curran 2013)” – Ecological Composition and Condition of the Boreas Ponds Tract, Dr. Michale Glennon, WCS Adirondack Program Technical Paper 7 found at www.wcsnorthamerica.org.
This WCS report is more detailed than necessary to make the general point that undrained, healthy swamps are much more richly various in form and function than officials in Washington D.C. (or Albany) could possibly imagine. The same conclusion was reached by the Adirondack Park Agency’s staff (February 2017 meeting) about how important these Boreas tract wetlands are to the Park and the State. The APA with the help of Dr. Glennon knows not only how much wetland is in the Park, but how their variety and diversity contributes to the regional and global values and functions of the Park. These swamps are home to rare and vanishing birds, Adirondack “responsibility species” because we harbor them in numbers on a landscape scale, facts that no other state can claim. Losing these values, functions and species dependent on them would constitute a form of death to the Park and to the globe. Climate change overlain over unsustainable human activities poses precisely that threat.
If the Boreas tract’s Northern Swamp were still on private land, as it was until 2016, the Adirondack Park Agency would have a lot to say about its protection and potential alteration by human development. The Freshwater Wetlands Act applies in the Adirondack Park to all wetlands one acre or greater in size and in some cases to even smaller wetlands like vernal pools when those pools are embedded within larger wetland systems. In the rest of the state, the NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation is only empowered through its regulatory authority to control human activities on swamps and other wetlands 12.4 acres (2.5 hectares) in size. That size threshold has remained unchanged since 1975 despite what 40 years of science has taught us about the value of small, even very small wetlands.
An archetype of the value of very small wetlands is the vernal pool, those ephemeral woodland pools of water which dry up in late spring and summer but which from a biological and ecological perspective “punch far beyond their weight.” They enable our forest systems to function well. Adirondack Wild’s consulting conservation biologist, Dr. Michael Klemens, described these pools during the Adirondack Club and Resort public hearing:
“Vernal pools are seasonally filled wetlands that are stand-alone depressions or parts of larger wetland complexes. They are vital habitat for several amphibian species termed vernal pool obligates. The most widespread obligates in the Adirondack Park are wood frogs and spotted salamanders. The blue-spotted salamander is quite rare, and the Jefferson salamander not confirmed. The latter two species are State-listed. Wood frogs play an important role in energy transport within wetlands, converting decomposing leaves into biomass. The sheer numbers of wood frogs in the ecosystem make them an important food source by volume for many higher vertebrates. Vernal pools also provide ecological services that are important. While these services occur in other wetlands, vernal pools are especially valuable for denitrification, detention of flood waters, as well as aquifer recharge.”
“Each vernal pool is fed from its own small watershed, and some also are groundwater fed. The upland forest surrounding the pool keeps it shaded and avoids premature and rapid drying out, provides nutrients to drive the pool energy system, and provides terrestrial habitat for the amphibians that breed in the pools for eleven months of the year.”
“I recommend no development within the first 100 feet of the pool (the vernal pool envelope) and limit development in the critical terrestrial habitat zone (the areas from 100-750 feet beyond the pools high water mark) to no more than 25%, and that development must conform to strict design standards” – Prefiled testimony of Dr. Michael W. Klemens, NYS APA ACR hearing, April 2011).
While NYS APA in their yearly permitting has grown more conscious of the important role that vernal pools and other small wetlands play in Adirondack forest ecosystems, its sister agency NYS DEC appears hamstrung. DEC’s website says many important things about the multiple values of vernal pools, but other than offering advice about their importance that big agency seems helpless from a legal standpoint to protect vernal pools from being bulldozed for home or commercial sites – since so many of the pools are an acre, or a lot smaller.
A few dozen vernal pools (wood frogs and spotted salamanders included) near my home are poised to be destroyed by deforestation, roads and lawns in a nearby, 205 unit residential subdivision about to be permitted by my home town. DEC has told me they cannot protect the pools.
In fact, since 2000 the former NYS Senate President Joe Bruno, in a political act designed to help land subdividers, blocked the DEC from further remapping and extension of regulated wetlands in Saratoga County. Curiously, years after Joe Bruno has left the political scene in Albany NYS DEC still appears unwilling to expand its wetland maps despite knowing for 15 years where those expansions are justified to protect some wetlands. Property rights (read developers), it appears, still hold sway over our Governor and DEC officials.
There is always hope, and this year legislation is back in Albany to amend the NYS Freshwater Wetland Act to incorporate protection for wetlands “one acre or more in size or, in the discretion of the Commissioner, of significant local importance for one or more of the specific benefits set forth.” The bill is NYS Senate bill 1749 sponsored by Senator Latimer. Vernal pools are not specifically mentioned or included for protection in the legislation, but they should be – as they are in neighboring Massachusetts.