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Missouri destroyed 87% of its wetlands. What remains is still in danger

Wood ducks float among waterlilies in a pond on the Wetlands Trail, a 1.3-mile loop in Shaw Nature Reserve.
Matilda Adams
/
Missouri Botanical Garden
Wood ducks float among waterlilies in a pond on the Wetlands Trail, a 1.3-mile loop in Shaw Nature Reserve.

Each year, an estimated 60,000 acres of wetlands is lost in the United States. They are the most threatened ecosystem in the country.

“People look at a wet, swampy marshy area, and they think: ‘We can improve that. If we drain it, we can turn it into agriculture; if we fill it, we can put buildings on it, and we can improve that land,’” said Mike Saxton, Shaw Nature Reserve's restoration and land stewardship manager.

That logic has produced disastrous results for the ecosystem: In Missouri, agriculture, urban development and man-made flood control measures have replaced 87% of the state’s original wetlands. The remaining 13% continue to serve as a natural source of carbon sequestration and flood mitigation. The loss of wetlands also impacts the 200 animal and plant species that call them home.

Chorus frogs calls can be heard at the Shaw Nature Reserve starting in spring.
Matilda Adams
/
Missouri Botanical Garden
Chorus frogs calls can be heard at the Shaw Nature Reserve starting in spring.

“A lot of times, people will focus on [the] climate crisis, but then they leave off the fact that we also have a biodiversity crisis as well,” Saxton said. “There's going to be no silver bullet to [climate change] … and so wetlands, which can be these biodiversity hotspots — these reservoirs for all these biologically rich, natural communities — if they're serving that dual purpose of being mechanisms by which we can mitigate climate, it's just an added bonus.”

Wetlands are at further risk due to a 2023 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that narrowed the scope of the Clean Water Act. The decision in Sackett v. EPA means that about 50% of the country’s wetlands are no longer protected under federal law.

“It was a windfall for developers,” said Saxton. “Before, they might have had to offset their disturbance [by paying for] wetland restoration and other areas [via] special permitting fees. Some of those obstacles to development were cleared out of the way by this interpretation of the Clean Water Act.”

Saxton joined St. Louis on the Air to discuss the ecology of wetlands in the St. Louis region, current conservation efforts and why voting is the most effective way to ensure the future of the country’s wetlands.

“Voting is extremely important — to find those candidates, those parties that are supporting these kinds of conservation efforts,” he said. “The Missouri Department of Conservation has enjoyed a lot of public support for many years. MDC does great work, and that's because the voters and the people of the state support them through tax initiatives, through engaging with all their programming, [and] with visiting their sites.”

Listen to the discussion on Apple Podcast, Spotify or Google Podcast, or by clicking the play button below.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org

Copyright 2024 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Emily Woodbury