Where the Water Meets the Land and the Land the Water: Bog, Wetland, Fen, Peatland, Marsh, Pocosin, Swamp — Preservation and Incremental Restoration for a More Climate Resilient Future
by Ryan Barry (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Imperfect musings blending the practical, philosophical, and at times provocative on Sustainability, Resilience, Regeneration, Well-being, Cities, Economic & Sustainable Development, Conservation, the Changing Nature of Work, Innovation and other topics relevant to our modern times.
Posted: February 28th, 2023 (updated 4/07/2023)
The environment, nature, wildlife, ecosystems, and sustainability have always been an interest of mine. At an early age, I spent much time around streams, rivers, lakes, ponds, and the Atlantic Ocean. My grandfather taught us how to fish. He shared ideals of fishermen being stewards of the waters and natural lands. To leave a place better-off than when one found it, to be protectors-of-the-land, and to practice ways that ensure there will be fish there both the next time you go fishing and for future generations. As life went on, I learned catching nothing at all — nor fishing at all- yet being in nature makes for moments and a fulfilling day. Further, an elementary school science teacher with a passion for the environment and conservation introduced me to ideas I found to make much sense. She was even able to restore a degraded once wetland-area on the periphery of the school-playground effectively back to its natural wetland condition. Today, these seemingly insignificant reflections from a childhood many years ago are indeed of significance. These teachings, behaviors, and subtle sharing of values to this day guide my appreciation of nature and the importance of preserving, restoring, and regenerating natural habitat. Many others have imprints from their youth of exposure to water, nature, the wilds, and the natural world. Now, more so than ever, there is a need to focus on preserving and reviving these natural systems that as a society we’ve substantially burdened.
According to, Sustainable World Radio — Ecology and Permaculture Podcast: Water Always Wins — Slow Water Solutions for Drought and Deluge — Author Erica Gies of 2023 book, Water Always Wins: Thriving in an Age of Drought and Deluge, shares “humanity has drained or filled 87% of the world’s wetlands”. The UN Environment Programme’s, Wetlands: the unsung heroes of the planet describes wetlands as “some of the planet’s most important ecosystems”. The resounding statistic of a mere 13% of the world’s wetlands remaining today, expresses a contradiction to their importance and a dismissal of their value in early phases of development of what have become thriving US and global cities. The 2017 book edited by Paul Hawken, Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, shares “often in human history, “wetland” has meant “wasteland” — a place to dike, dredge, and drain for purposes ranging from farming to homesteading”. Sharing similar historic sentiment of the wetland, in a October 11th, 2022, NPR Author Interviews: Annie Proulx speaks of her 2022 Book — Fen, Bog, & Swamp: A Short History of Peatland Destruction and Its Role in the Climate Crisis — she states “the peatlands have never been regarded by most people as something that’s a necessary part of life, but as an obstruction, something that’s in the way”.
Parts of several great American cities were indeed built upon wetlands — Washington, D.C.; Boston, Massachusetts; and San Francisco, California. Bodies of water such as lakes, rivers, bays, and harbors were integral amenities for settlements — providing access to transportation, food, water itself, and other important resources. The National Park Service shares “marshes, bogs, and swamps are typical wetlands” and “occupy an important transition zone between land and water”. Thus, building in these transitional areas gave access to both the land and water. The DCist’s, Behind the Name: Foggy Bottom, describes “In 1928, the Washington Post declared “Foggy Bottom” an extinct nomenclature. Over eighty years later, one of D.C.’s oldest neighborhoods is firmly branded with the curious nickname, which was spawned from smoke and fog that hovered over the industries once housed on the area’s low, swampy land.”
The July 8th, 2020, Bloomberg Law — INSIGHT: NEPA Suspension, Infrastructure Bill Put Wetlands at Risk article by Jeremy Schewe, shares “the U.S. is home to more than 110.1 million acres of wetlands. Their benefits are multifarious. An important buffer from climate change impacts, wetlands control floods much more effectively and efficiently than any floodwall, provide a habitat to nearly one-third of the earth’s endangered species, and have the ability to absorb and store excess carbon from the atmosphere.” Despite the know benefits of wetlands, the article goes on to share, “according to a report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), wetlands are disappearing at a rate of about 80,000 acres each year, and regulatory moves this year (2020) threaten to hasten this decimation”. Why do we continue to neglect this known to be integral part of our natural systems and world?
The oldest Major League Baseball stadium in the US, and Boston Red Sox stadium, is called Fenway Park. The US Forest Service presents “fens are an important and unique wetland type. Fens are peat-forming wetlands that rely on groundwater input and require thousands of years to develop and cannot easily be restored once destroyed”. Through the Fence Baseball: Looking Back at the History of Fenway Park, tells of the ballpark’s name originating from its location in the Boston Fenway neighborhood that received its name being it was built by filling the 19th century urban park, Back Bay Fens. The Bjarke Ingels Group is working with the Oakland A’s on a future baseball stadium. Bjarke Ingels suggests “what if we could bring the ballpark back into the park — ‘a park in a park’”. CLADnews article, Bjark Ingels-designed Oakland basebell stadium a step closer shares, “BIG’s innovative designs include a rooftop park which can be used by both fans and the wider community and offers views of the Oakland waterfront”. In the next iteration of Fenway, could the Fen be added back to Fenway?
KQED article, Large Parts of the Bay Area Are Built on Fill. Why and Where? Notes “in the mid-1800s, the U.S. Congress passed the U.S. Swamp Lands Acts”, “originally designed to help Louisiana drain its swamp lands and build levees — but were quickly put to use in other states. The laws allowed people to claim wetlands or marshlands as their own property if they drained it and used it for an agricultural purpose. This led to a spree of building levees and draining wetlands.” Fast forward to the 1950’s, the Army Corps of Engineers did a study of Bay Area development estimating 243 square miles of once marshlands, wetlands and tidal lands “available for reclamation” had been reclaimed and thus drained or filled. A 2022, Pew Charitable Trust Paper: Wetlands Restoration Boosted Greenhouse Gas Captured by San Francisco Bay Estuary poses a change in sentiment of the wetlands that were once only valued for their potential to be reclaimed to conversion to land — “although past land use practices such as diking and draining the bay’s coastal habitats mean that its wetlands still are a fraction of the size that they once were, they remain a vital resource for the region, state, and nation”.
In Massachusetts, beyond the fen another wetland name comes to mind, the bog — more specifically, the cranberry bog. The Massachusetts Government Cranberry Bog Program shares there are approximately 13,250 acres of cranberry farms in Massachusetts today, while the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers Association presents there are 48,000 acres of wetlands in the state. Thus, in Massachusetts there is an approximate acres of wetlands to acres of cranberry farms ratio of 3.62:1. In other words, for every approximately 3.62 acres of wetlands there’s 1 acre of cranberry farmland. Per a 2015, Boston Magazine article, there are 415 farms producing cranberries in the state and a typical cranberry bog in Massachusetts is 10–20 acres. If 1% of the acreage of cranberry farms were to be retired via “willing landowners who are interested in retiring from the cranberry industry” — this is equivalent to ~133 acres or 8.8 15 acre cranberry bogs. Based upon the Association to Preserve Cape Cod (APCC), River and Bog Restoration “Massachusetts lost more than 28% of its wetlands between the 1780s and 1980s and continues to lose wetlands every year (per Mass DEP)”. Thus, a flip to the state adding wetlands back to the landscape, in a mindful and ecologically sensitive way, is a step in a restorative direction. Based upon the 2016 Massachusetts Revitalization Task Force Final Report, “many Massachusetts cranberry bogs, particularly those in Plymouth County, are built on bogs mined for iron ore in the 1800’s. Most of those on Cape Cod were developed in previously undisturbed peat bogs. These wetland bogs offer a unique opportunity to provide wetland functions and values with minimal restoration.” There seems to be unique ecological restoration opportunity in prioritizing the current day cranberry bogs that are characterized as “previously undisturbed peat bog”. According to the book, Drawdown, “peatlands are also known as bogs or mires. They are neither solid ground nor water, but something in between. Peat is a thick, mucky, waterlogged, substance made up of dead and decomposing plant matter. It develops over hundreds, even thousands of years as a soupy mix of wetland moss, grass, and other vegetation slowly decays beneath a living layer of flora in the near absence of oxygen”. Peatlands are also important and effective natural carbon sinks, though they can turn into carbon producers if perturbed. According to, The Duke Nicholas School of the Environment, 2021 article, Slow-Growing Microbes Give Southern Peat a Carbon Storage Advantage, “Peatlands are wetlands that cover only 3 percent of Earth’s land but store one-third of the planet’s total soil carbon. Left undisturbed, they can lock away carbon in their organic soil for millennia due to natural antimicrobial compounds called phenolics and aromatics that prevent the waterlogged peat beneath their surface from decomposing.” Though preservation, conservation, and protection of this ecosystem is the number one priority, incrementally recovering previously degraded or drained peatlands through restoration is an additional part of a regenerative puzzle.
Similar to the peatlands of Massachusetts and the northeast, the North Carolina Coastal plain is home to a unique type of wetland, the pocosin. According to NOAA, “at one time, pocosins were prominent ecosystems in the southeastern United States, but they disappeared rapidly due to their perceived low value for the environment and high value for land development”. The Duke Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment & Sustainability shares “many pocosins in North Carolina have been altered by drainage, land clearing, or plantation forestry”. Similar to converting a retired once peatland now cranberry bog back to peatland bog, we now understand that restoring pocosin wetlands back to a healthy natural state has great benefit. The Spring 2023 Duke Magazine article Carbon Neutrality’s Newfound Helper — Peat Bogs by Scott Huler shares “Many pocosins have been drained and turned into farmland over the years, but they often don’t succeed as farms and are abandoned to sit fallow.” NOAA shares pocosin wetlands restoration benefit not only terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems but also human communities. The catch, characteristics of the southern peatlands compared to northern peatlands gives them an ability to “reduce the loss of their stored carbon during prolonged periods of heat and drought, conditions which are increasing common under climate change” shares Director of the Duke Wetland Center, Curtis J. Richardson. The Duke Nicholas School of the Environment, 2021 article, Slow-Growing Microbes Give Southern Peat a Carbon Storage Advantage, asserts, “This is one of the reasons why these peatlands, which cover hundreds of thousands of acres across the U.S. Southeast alone, should be protected or set aside for use as carbon farms. They are part of nature’s solution to store carbon for thousands of years, which reduces greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere.” In the Spring 2023 Duke Magazine article Richardson further emphasis the possibilities of regenerating these fallow pocosins, “it turns out that if you wet them [again] — if you look at the amount of land that’s just drained and not really being used, we estimate you could influence about 2.4 percent of the national goal to reach carbon neutrality for the entire United States.” By restoring and regenerating what already exists, in this case degraded pocosins there is great possibility.
Further opportunity arises as the cranberry industry is said to be shifting to other areas of the United States and Canada. The National Geographic article, Climate change is coming for New England’s cranberries, poses “hotter summers, wimpier winters, shifting springs: they’ll all add up to make the conditions for the fruits and their dedicated growers”. Thus, with increasing condition uncertainty due to climate change and some natural turnover of “willing landowners who are interested in retiring from the cranberry industry”, the timing for increasing focus on cranberry bog ecological restoration may be opportune. Sarah Klionsky, a Ph.D. student at UConn’s College of Agriculture, Health, and Natural Resources focuses her work studying restoration efforts that are increasing the number of wetlands in the region. In her comparisons of active cranberry bog restorations to sites that were abandoned she suggests “restorations set former cranberry farms on a path to returning to wetlands, whereas abandoned sites often become wooded with upland species”. In conclusion, the benefits of cranberry bog restoration are abundant: Restoring wetlands/riparian fens and floodplains, salvaging unique peatland habitat, reconnecting streams and rivers, enabling passage for aquatic wildlife, boosting biodiversity (flora and fauna), increasing carbon sink capacity, enhancing water quality and filtration — including potential filtration of nitrates prior to reaching estuaries, and creation of a ‘green exit strategy’ for retiring cranberry bogs. The author is by no means suggesting all cranberry bogs to be restored to wetlands. Cranberry bogs are ingrained in the heritage and tradition of Massachusetts and it’s people and it is said per the Cape Cod Cranberry Industry Growers Association, “Massachusetts was born with cranberry bogs”. Further, the native North American fruit has been consumed for its great health benefits for thousands of years. The Cape Cod Cranberry Grower’s Association shares of the wide-variety of health benefits of the cranberry including urinary tract infection reduction, cardiovascular health, metabolism, inflammation benefits, gut health, immune function, and potential reduction of cancer and other degenerative diseases.
In 2016, The Cranberry Revitalization Task Force was created “to examine the status of the industry and the complex challenges ahead, and to develop a multi-pronged action plan geared toward stabilizing and revitalizing this beleaguered industry”. The 2016 Massachusetts Revitalization Task Force Final Report shares the Task Force focused on three main categories: 1) Renovation, 2) Technology & Innovation and 3) Exit Strategies. Thus the third category “Exit Strategies” is focused on restoration of bogs to a more natural state. “Exit Strategies provide potential options to retire bogs and provide an economic incentive for growers to maintain land for conservation purposes”. The Task Force recommended “that the industry work with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to make the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program more useful for cranberry growers looking to exit the industry or “retire” some of their acreage”. Here’s an example of revitalization of the culturally and economically important industry also integrating the importance of the environment. Economic and environmental viability can co-exist.
The rampant development of modernity will continue. The Ellen McArthur foundation suggests, “it is estimated that globally between now and 2060, the equivalent of the city of Paris will be built each week”. There will continue to be the paradox of growth and preservation. The US Department of the Interior shares “approximately 60% of land in the continental U.S. is in a natural state, but we are losing a football field worth of it every 30 seconds.” Development that’s more mindful, sustainable, resilient plus climate and wildlife informed — can learn from mistakes of the past and design-in sustainability and natural preservation from planning stages. Today, we better understand interconnectedness and the great value of natural elements of the landscape such as streams, wetlands, trees, and forests. Further, access to technological tools, such as Asheville, NC based Ecobot’s Wetland Delineation and Compliance Platform should guide better decision making. We need approaches that are not “development or environment” but rather “environment and profit”. Growth and development can’t continue to be about growth and development for the sake of growth and development in the name of said to be progress. There is indeed a difference between growth and quality growth; development and sustainable-climate-informed development; land use and sensible land use; infrastructure and climate-informed infrastructure. Progress of the future needs to be about quality, sustainability, and sensibility. Though, we too, need to push to preserve the still existing natural waters, lands, and habitat — including wetlands — making better decisions on where not to develop and where to de-develop. Are there possibilities in a parking-lot, road, vacant lot, industrial-site no-longer serving it’s once intended purpose that was built in a floodplain or atop a wetland that could be reverted back to a more natural state?
On the Outer Banks of North Carolina a 2-mile stretch of highway-12 known as the “S-Curves” that was considered “the most vulnerable section of N.C. Highway 12” was removed and reverted back to nature. The area was returned to the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge — allowing for part of the barrier island to once again move more naturally and dynamically in tandem with natural cycles. The removal was partially enabled by the Rodanthe “jug handle” Bridge project. According to the October 2022, News & Observer article, ‘Iconic’ stretch of Outer Banks highway known as ‘S-curves’ is being removed forever, “the “S-Curves” became redundant in July (2022), when the state opened the Rodanthe “jug handle” bridge. As part of the Rodanthe Jug Handle Bridge project another 19 acres was added to the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. It’s important to note, based upon the January 12, 2023, Island Press article, Removal of old N.C. Highway 12 pavement north of Rodanthe complete, “removing the old section of the highway was the final step in the multiple-year Jug Handle Bridge project, which began in July 2018”. Thus, the effort was not one that occurred overnight. Megan Mayhew Bergman, in February 2022, reports in The Guardian: North Carolina’s coastal highway is disappearing so I took a road trip to capture it, the Pea Island Wildlife Refuge to be “a critical area for migrating and threatened birds like the American Oystercatcher and Least Tern”. Similar to the Cranberry Bog of Massachusetts, the Outer Banks road removal was a complicated endeavor in a space characterized by an area of environmental sensitivity and cultural sensitivity convergence.
Increasingly, Regional Planners and planning processes have the ability to view and influence a wider regions development. Tough decisions will have to be made that will not please all stakeholders, though should be democratic and participatory in nature. There will be instances of topics where consideration will include and go beyond both environmental and cultural sensitivity — these decisions can impact people, communities, livelihoods, quality-of-life, and well-being. Sacrificing parts of the urban canopy in an urban setting to create more density and urban infill to prevent urban sprawl and development of agricultural land, forests, and other natural habitat may be a sound decision. Ideally, there can be both — preservation of the urban canopy and densification. Rezoning office buildings as residential to allow for office to residential conversion adapting to the changing nature-of-work, decreased office work, and increased work-from-home practices may be a consideration worth review. Such office-to-residential conversion enables densification in urban-cores while decreasing the burden on undeveloped natural spaces and developing-outward — potentially expanding and exacerbating urban-sprawl. Wetlands and water features in an urban setting may necessitate manipulation to prevent flooding or enable building. Though too, restoration of a wetland or stream up-river from a community may create climate-resiliency results within the down-stream community that are unachievable via projects in the downstream locality. With this knowledge, would the downstream community contribute to the rebuilding of upstream wetlands that are beyond the physical boundaries of their community? We know nature, water flows, and climate see no human-made boundaries. Realistically, it probably doesn’t make sense to add the Fen back to Fenway. Though, up the road, some bogs may very well be restored and return to a more natural state.
Communities can be more pragmatic in adding back and restoring layers that were neglected in past iterations of development. This may mean strategically adapting the native urban canopy. Reclaiming land and reverting space back to natural areas. These natural areas may take the form of parks or simply become rewild space where once restored nature takes over. The Chesapeake Conservancy Conservation Innovation Center: Vacant Lots to Green Spaces (1-pager) reads — “In 2014, the City of Baltimore produced the Green Pattern Book, a document that helps individuals and organizations understand how green infrastructure projects (e.g., community gardens, parks) could be developed on vacant land”. Thus, communities have been working on incrementally adding back green and natural spaces for some time. Many of these themes and ideas aren’t new though with increasing evidence of climate pattern changes the efforts have taken on enhanced significance. In the 2020, ISSP Sustainability Hall of Fame: Janine Benyus Interview, she expresses provocative ideas of creating biomimetic cities and thinking of cities in the context of ecosystem services — comparing the city to adjacent lands or those that it was built upon and the proposition that we can “strive for the city to be functionally indistinguishable from the natural ecosystem”. Adding back layers of the natural and nature can bring us incrementally closer to the ideals of the biomimetic city.
When unique opportunities, such as a once peat bog now cranberry bog being retired and restored back to a more natural state; a stretch of maintenance-prone highway on a barrier island being reclaimed as a wildlife refuge; or a once covered Bronx NYC — Tibbetts Creek being daylighted — structures and funding pathways should be in place to make sound, pragmatic, and practical decisions to do so. Erica Gies adds to the possibilities suggesting of “slow water projects” and “take little pieces of land that we are able to free from human demands to return to water — every little bit helps — cumulatively it adds up to a big impact”. The structures and funding pathways can be enabled by creating organizational competency and scaffolding of collaborative practices, such as the ‘Joint Infrastructure Approaches’ proposed by the World Resources Institute (WRI). Through such collaborative practices, departments in cities, and other organizations with stewardship-of-the-landscape responsibilities, have the greenlight to work together through pre-existing policies, structures, and funding mechanisms. According to the 2016 Massachusetts Revitalization Task Force Final Report “Federal agencies such as the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service have existing programs that purchase agricultural rights from prior converted wetlands such as cranberry bogs and restore them to their previous wetland function”. The-realm-of-the-possible could be further enabled through adding private and philanthropic partnerships to the equation — Public-Private-Philanthropic Partnership (P4). We simply can no longer ignore the value of the world’s natural systems, including wetlands, any longer. We need innovative, reconsidered, and reimagined approaches to the way we develop so the stewardship-of-the-natural-world teachings being passed along aren’t simply figments of the past for future generations.
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