Protecting Property Rights, Preserving Federalism and Saving Wetlands

Studies | Environment

No. 291
Wednesday, October 25, 2006
by Daniel R. Simmons, J.D. and H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D.


From Swamps to Wetlands

Figure I - States with Highest Wetland Losses

"For more than 100 years, the federal government encouraged states to drain wetlands."

The federal government historically viewed wetlands as an obstacle to progress and a nuisance. Swamps bred mosquitoes, which spread malaria and other diseases, so draining them was a high priority. Beginning with the Swamp Lands Act of 1849, the federal government distributed some 65 million acres to 15 states for reclamation purposes.1 The federal grants were predicated on draining the swamps to "improve" them. Leading farm states such as California, Illinois, Iowa, Indiana and Ohio have eliminated more than 85 percent of their original wetlands acreage.2 [See Figure I.] Thus, much of the current debate revolves around activities in states that still have a sizable portion of their original wetlands, along with smaller areas in states that developed their wetlands earlier.

"As a result, more than half of U.S. wetlands have been lost."

At the turn of the 20th century, courts supported the federal government's role in converting wetlands. Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court characterized wetlands as the cause of malarial and malignant fevers and proclaimed "the police power is never more legitimately exercised than in removing such nuisances."3 Given this historic attitude toward wetlands, it is not surprising that the United States has lost more than half of all the wetlands that existed in colonial times.4 [See Figure II.]

Figure II - Wetland Losses%2C 1780s-1980s

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