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Ramsar and the Ugly Duckling of Ecosystems
Photo Credit: Ryan Hagerty
by Ira Seligman
Not so long ago, many people considered wetlands nothing but diseaseridden swaps, unsightly and devoid of any ecological or aesthetic value. As a result, wetlands were often drained, filled, or otherwise modified to accommodate development. In the last 30 years, however, the important roles they play in healthy environmental systems have become better known. Not only do wetlands act as a natural groundwater filter and a defense against floods, they are also the most biologically rich of all ecosystems.
As recognition grew about the significance of wetlands, a movement to devise a multi-national agreement for their conservation emerged. In 1962, a conference led by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and other organizations made the first international attempt to conserve wetlands, primarily as a means to protect waterfowl habitat. It later became clear that their primary habitats, wetlands, were at greater risk. In 1971, an agreement called the Convention on Wetlands of International importance was signed by 18 nations in Ramsar, Iran.
Under the agreement, popularly known as the Ramsar Convention, signatory countries must designate at least one "wetland of international importance," also known as a Ramsar site. They are also expected to ensure the "effective management" of all designated Ramsar sites within their boundaries and practice their "wise use" through "national land-use planning, appropriate policies and legislation, management actions, and public education." Currently, 159 countries have a total of almost 1,900 Ramsar Sites.
In the United States, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the administrative authority for the Ramsar Convention. Twenty-seven Ramsar sites have been listed in the U.S., including at least 10 sites within the past decade.
Not only does the Ramsar Convention raise awareness of the importance of wetlands, it also allows non-profit organizations, government agencies, and local citizens to join in conservation efforts. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Collier and Lee counties near Naples, Florida. Unlike most Ramsar sites, the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is privately owned and managed. The National Audubon Society purchased the site in 1954 to protect one of the largest remaining bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) forests in North America. In light of recent, large-scale development in southern Florida, the Sanctuary, now managed by Audubon of Florida, has become an invaluable preserve for Florida’s dwindling natural ecosystems.
Indeed, the sanctuary is host to a number of endangered plants and animals, including such notable endangered species as the Florida panther (Puma concolor coryi) and the wood stork (Mycteria americana). It also provides habitat for the extremely rare and popular American ghost orchid (Dendrophylax lindenii), a species introduced into popular culture by the book, The Orchid Thief, and a related film, Adaptation. As a result, the Sanctuary has become a thriving ecotourist destination attracting more than 100,000 visitors annually.
But this success brings a number of challenges. For example, once visitors surpassed 100,000 annually, Florida state law required the Sanctuary to build a sewage system. This posed a unique opportunity: instead of constructing an on-site treatment facility, Audubon of Florida elected to take a novel approach, constructing a "Living Machine." Through the construction of artificial marshes, the Living Machine uses the natural filtering capabilities of wetlands to cleanse and restore its water supply. Not only does the Living Machine provide clean water, it also provides a meaningful opportunity for public education on the ecological value of wetlands.
In managing Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, Audubon of Florida must also face external challenges. While the area is largely protected from development because of a variety of state and federal laws, including the Endangered Species Act, the Sanctuary’s managers must deal with the destructive potential of invasive plants, including Australian melaleuca (Melaleuca quinquenervia), Old-World climbing fern (Lygodium microphyllum), Brazilian pepper (Schinus terebinthifolius), and water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes). While these are some of the more insidious invasive species, it is by no means an exhaustive list.
In recent decades, the public perception of wetlands has shifted dramatically. Once considered ecological wastelands, wetlands are now recognized for the important environmental services they provide. Conservation efforts promoted by the Ramsar Convention continue to raise public awareness, as illustrated by the success of Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.
Ira Seligman is a third year law student at Pace University in New York, and interned for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Division of International Conservation in the summer of 2009, working on the Ramsar Convention.
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