Cross the Hope Diamond with Rodney Dangerfield and you can guess the result: a thing of great value that gets no respect.
So it is with wetlands, some of nature's most useful and productive places yet among the least loved and most misunderstood. Earlier generations of Ohioans gave them other, even less appealing names swamps, bogs and fens and did their best to live without them.
But despite their dank and marshy reputation, wetlands do have their fans. And the numbers are growing. Outdoor enthusiasts, who know that wetlands are the best places to watch migrating birds, for example, and students of the environment are giving Ohio's wetlands more respect every day. It's a show of respect that's long overdue.
So what makes our wetlands, these disrespected meetings of land and water, such great places to visit and learn about? For starters, wetlands are critical to the continuance of many plant and animal species. They are resting places for migrating birds, spawning grounds for aquatic life forms, nesting and feeding habitat for a wide variety of mammals, fish, birds, reptiles, and amphibians.
Less visible to the passing hiker or birdwatcher, wetlands are dynamic ecosystems that act like sponges. In this way they reduce the danger of flooding by retaining excessive rain in their absorbent soils, then slowly releasing it into rivers and streams. Wetlands help keep our water sources clean, filtering the surface water as it slowly percolates into porous rock, sand and gravel underground.
Did you know Ohios wetlands provide habitat for many rare or endangered species? In fact, one-third of Ohios rare plants live within a wetland habitat! Plants such as the rare, insect-eating pitcher plant and round-leaved sundew can be found on Cranberry Bog State Nature Preserve, a mossy meadow wetland uniquely located in the middle of Buckeye Lake, east of Columbus.
Prior to settlement, just less than a fifth of Ohios 28.6 million acres were wetlands. Long-ago trappers and explorers described these wetlands as places filled with lush vegetation and teeming with wildlife, including elk, black bear, beaver, mountain lion and even timber wolves.
The largest of these wetlands was the Great Black Swamp, covering ten northwest Ohio counties from the Sandusky River to the Indiana border, an area about the size of Connecticut. The swampy land was considered uninhabitable and inhospitable to homesteaders and travelers, delaying development of that area by nearly 100 years.
Early Ohioans eventually removed most of these impediments to progress including the Great Black Swamp by redirecting waterways, damming streams, and cutting down trees. They drained the land to make way for farming, roadways and homes.
Today, a little less than 10 percent of our state is made up of wetlands and nearly half of those remaining wetlands measure less than an acre each. While greatly diminished in size and scope, wetlands continue to play a vital role in the health and well being of the natural world around us.
Some wetlands are natural green spaces in urban and agricultural areas. Others allow us to participate in a variety of outdoor activities that would be impossible without the diversity of a wetland, such as hunting, fishing, bird watching and nature study.
Goll Woods State Nature Preserve, a 320-acre patch of old-growth forest in Fulton County, is most of what remains of the ancient Great Black Swamp. Visitors to Mary Jane Thurston, Independence Dam, Harrison Lake or Van Buren state parks in northwest Ohio can only imagine the ominous Great Black Swamp of frontier Ohio that was tamed by pioneer axes and ditches to create Ohios most productive agricultural land.
Every fall, birding enthusiasts flock to some of the states most visible and expansive wetlands, which exist along Lake Erie. Coastal marshes at Crane Creek State Park and Magee Marsh State Wildlife Area are visited by more than 300 species of songbirds, shorebirds and waterfowl each year. Nearly half of the species documented are known to breed in the marshes and 120 species are considered year-round residents.
So the next time youre on a hike and see a mucky, marshy square of land, give it the respect it deserves as a magical place where water and land work in partnership to bring about good things for Ohioans.