Classification of Wetlands and Deepwater Habitats of the United States

Use of the Classification System

This System was designed for use over an extremely wide geographic area and for use by individuals and organizations with varied interests and objectives. The classification employs 5 System names, 8 Subsystem names, 11 Class names, 28 Subclass names, and an unspecified number of Dominance Types. It is, of necessity, a complex System when viewed in its entirety, but use of the System for a specific purpose at a local site should be simple and straightforward. Artificial keys to the Systems and Classes (Appendix E) are furnished to aid the user of the classification, but reference to detailed definitions in the text is also required. The purpose of this section is to illustrate how the System should be used and some of the potential pitfalls that could lead to its misuse.

Before attempting to apply the System, the user should consider four important points:

(1) Information about the area to be classified must be available before the System can be applied. This information may be in the form of historical data, aerial photographs, brief on-site inspection, or detailed and intensive studies. The System is designed for use at varying degrees of detail. There are few areas for which sufficient information is available to allow the most detailed application of the System. If the level of detail provided by the data is not sufficient for the needs of the user, additional data gathering is mandatory.

(2) Below the level of Class, the System is open-ended and incomplete. We give only examples of the vast number of Dominance Types that occur. The user may identify additional Dominance Types and determine where these fit into the classification hierarchy. It is also probable that as the System is used the need for additional Subclasses will become apparent.

(3) One of the main purposes of the new classification is to ensure uniformity throughout the United States. It is important that the user pay particular attention to the definitions in the classification. Any attempt at modification of these definitions will lead to lack of uniformity in application.

(4) One of the principal uses of the classification system will be the inventory and mapping of wetlands and deepwater habitats. A classification used in the mapping is scale-specific, both for the minimum size of units mapped and for the degree of detail attainable. It is necessary for the user to develop a specific set of mapping conventions for each application and to demonstrate their relationship to the generalized classification described here. For example, there are a number of possible mapping conventions for a small wetland basin 50 m (164 feet) in diameter with concentric rings of vegetation about the deepest zone. At a scale of 1:500 each zone may be classified and mapped; at 1:20,000 it might be necessary to map the entire basin as one zone and ignore the peripheral bands; and at 1:100,000 the entire wetland basin may be smaller than the smallest mappable unit, and such a small-scale map is seldom adequate for a detailed inventory and must be supplemented by information gathered by sampling. In other areas, it may be necessary to develop mapping conventions for taxa that cannot be easily recognized; for instance, Aquatic Beds in turbid waters may have to be mapped simply as Unconsolidated Bottom.

Hierarchical Levels and Modifiers

We have designed the various levels of the system for specific purposes, and the relative importance of each will vary among users. The Systems and Subsystems are most important in applications involving large regions or the entire country. They serve to organize the Classes into meaningful assemblages of information for data storage and retrieval.

The Classes and Subclasses are the most important part of the system for many users and are basic to wetland mapping. Most Classes should be easily recognizable by users in a wide variety of disciplines. However, the Class designations apply to average conditions over a period of years, and since many wetlands are dynamic and subject to rapid changes in appearance, the proper classification of a wetland will frequently require data that span a period of years and several seasons in each of those years.

The Dominance Type is most important to users interested in detailed regional studies. It may be necessary to identify Dominance Types in order to determine which modifying terms are appropriate, because plants and animals present in an area tend to reflect environmental conditions over a period of time. Water regime can be determined from long-term hydrologic studies where these are available. The more common procedure will be to estimate this characteristic from the Dominance Types. Several studies have related water regimes to the presence and distribution of plants or animals (e.g., Stephenson and Stephenson 1972; Stewart and Kantrud 1972; Chapman 1974).

Similarly, we do not intend that salinity measurements be made for all wetlands except where these data are required; often plant species or associations can be used to indicate broad salinity classes. Lists of halophytes have been prepared for both coastal and inland areas (e.g., Duncan 1974; MacDonald and Barbour 1974; Ungar 1974), and a number of floristic and ecological studies have described plants that are indicators of salinity (e.g., Penfound and Hathaway 1938; Moyle 1945; Kurz and Wagner 1957; Dillon 1966; Anderson et al. 1968; Chabreck 1972; Stewart and Kantrud 1972; Ungar 1974).

In areas where the Dominance Types to be expected under different water regimes and types of water chemistry conditions have not been identified, detailed regional studies will be required before the classification can be applied in detail. In areas where detailed soil maps are available, it is also possible to infer water regime and water chemistry from soil series (U.S. Soil Conservation Service, Soil Survey Staff 1975).

Some of the Modifiers are an integral part of this system and their use is essential; others are used only for detailed applications or for special cases. Modifiers are never used with Systems and Subsystems; however, at least one Water Regime Modifier, one Water Chemistry Modifier, and one Soil Modifier must be used at all lower levels in the hierarchy. Use of the Modifiers listed under mixosaline and mixohaline (Table 2) is optional but these finer categories should be used whenever supporting data are available. The user is urged not to rely on single observations of water regime or water chemistry. Such measurements give misleading results in all but the most stable wetlands. If a more detailed Soil Modifier, such as soil order or suborder (U.S. Soil Conservation Service, Soil Survey Staff 1975) can be obtained, it should be used in place of the Modifiers, mineral and organic. Special Modifiers are used where appropriate.

Relationship to Other Wetland Classifications

There are numerous wetland classifications in use in the United States. Here we relate this system to three published classifications that have gained widespread acceptance. It is not possible to equate these systems directly for several reasons: (1) the criteria selected for establishing categories differ; (2) some of the classifications are not applied consistently in different parts of the country; and (3) the elements classified are not the same in various classifications.

The most widely used classification system in the United States is that of Martin et al. (1953) which was republished in U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Circular 39 (Shaw and Fredine 1956). The wetland types are based on criteria such as water depth and permanence, water chemistry, life form of vegetation, and dominant plant species. In Table 4 we compare some of the major components of our system with the type descriptions listed in Circular 39.

In response to the need for more detailed wetland classification in the glaciated Northeast, Golet and Larson (1974) refined the freshwater wetland types of Circular 39 by writing more detailed descriptions and subdividing classes on the basis of finer differences in plant life forms. Golet and Larson's classes are roughly equivalent to Types 1-8 of Circular 39, except that they restrict Type 1 to river floodplains. The Golet and Larson system does not recognize the coastal (tidal) fresh wetlands of Circular 39 (Types 12-14) as a separate category, but classifies these areas in the same manner as nontidal wetlands. In addition to devising 24 subclasses, they also created 5 size categories, 6 site types giving a wetland's hydrologic and topographic location; 8 cover types (modified from Stewart and Kantrud 1971) expressing the distribution and relative proportions of cover and water; 3 vegetative interspersion types; and 6 surrounding habitat types. Since this system is based on the classes of Martin et al. (1953), Table 4 may also be used to compare the Golet and Larson system with the one described here. Although our system does not include size categories and site types, this information will be available from the results of the new inventory of wetlands and deepwater habitats of the United States.

Stewart and Kantrud (1971) devised a new classification system to better serve the needs of researchers and wetland managers in the glaciated prairies. Their system recognizes seven classes of wetlands which are distinguished by the vegetational zone occupying the central or deepest part and covering 5% or more of the wetland basin. The classes thus reflect the wetland's water regime; for example, temporary ponds (Class II) are those where the wet-meadow zone occupies the deepest part of the wetland. Six possible subclasses were created, based on differences in plant species composition that are correlated with variations in average salinity of surface water. The third component of classification in their system is the cover type, which represents differences in the spatial relation of emergent cover to open water or exposed bottom soil. The zones of Stewart and Kantrud's system are readily related to our water regime modifiers (Table 5), and the subclasses are roughly equivalent to our Water Chemistry Modifiers (Fig. 8).

Wetlands represent only one type of land and the classification of this part separate from the rest is done for practical rather than for ecological reasons (Cowardin 1978). Recently there has been a flurry of interest in a holistic approach to land classification (in Land Classification Series, Journal of Forestry, vol. 46, no. 10). A number of classifications have been developed (e.g., Radford 1978) or are under development (e.g., Driscoll et al. 1978). Parts of this wetland classification can be incorporated into broader hierarchical land classifications.

A classification system is most easily learned through use. To illustrate the application of this system, we have classified a representative group of wetlands and deepwater habitats of the United States (Plates 1-86).

GIF - Comparison of Water Chemistry Subclasses
Fig. 8. Comparison of the water chemistry subclasses of Stewart and Kantrud (1972) with Water Chemistry Modifiers used in the present classification system.

Table 5. Comparison of the zones of Stewart and Kantrud's (1971) classification with the Water Regime Modifiers used in the present classification system.
Water Regime Modifier
Wetland-low-prairie Non-wetland by our definition
Wet meadow Temporarily flooded
Shallow marsh Seasonally flooded
Deep marsh Semipermanently flooded
Intermittently exposed
Intermittent-alkali Intermittently flooded (with eusaline or hypersaline water)
Permanent-open-water Permanently flooded (with mixohaline water)
Fen (alkaline bog) Saturated

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