According to Dr. Ben Cash, Ph.D., "If you can't call it a lake, stream, or river, it's probably a wetlands." Dr. Cash is the Associate Professor of Biology at Maryville College and Chair of the Natural Science Division, as well as the lead researcher for the reptile survey in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Dr. Cash, who was instrumental in the development of our new Pistol Creek Wetlands Center and helped develop the educational facilities and signage for the area, recently gave a presentation to a packed room at the Blount County Library on the "Diversity and Importance of Wetlands."
During the 1700's, the U.S. was wetland rich with 221 million acres in the lower 48 states and 170 million acres in Alaska. Today that number has declined by over 50% to 107 million acres. Originally in Tennessee, there were 1,937,000 acres of wetlands. And today we have only 787,000 acres remaining, due to pollution, commercial development and agricultural conversion.
Wetlands are like giant sponges that exist in both fresh and salt water. Freshwater wetlands consist of forested swamps, bogs, fens, marshes, and isolated Pocosins. Marine wetlands are either coastal marshes or estuaries.. The inflow of both seawater and freshwater, in estuaries, provides high levels of nutrients making estuaries among the most productive natural habitats in the world.
Marine wetlands are the "nurseries of the ocean" and are declining about 2% every ten years, according to Dr. Cash. However with the recent BP oil spill, that number may increase dramatically.
Wetlands are a crucial part of our ecosystem, which benefit not only wildlife, but us humans as well:
- Improved Water Quality:Their natural water filtration system helps keep pollution, toxins and excess nutrients out of our water system. Water overloaded with nutrients is also susceptible to algae bloom, which can be very destructive to plant and animal life.
- Soil Erosion Prevention: Wetlands retard soil erosion because the abundant vegetation holds the soil in place.
- Critter hotels/rest stops/breeding grounds: Diverse species of mammals, insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds (native & migratory) and fish rely on wetlands for food, habitat, and shelter.
- Flood Protection: According to the EPA, undisturbed wetlands can store up to 60 days of floodwater. A one-acre wetland can typically store about one million gallons.
- Recreation, Research, and Education.
After the presentation, Dr. Cash led a tour of the Pistol Creek Wetlands Center which includes native birds, plants, frogs, snakes, insects, and other animals. No beavers were spotted during the tour, but their presence is obvious. The temperature was a few degrees cooler inside the wetlands, and the tour was serenaded sweetly by a shy chorus of frogs.
The area has been preserved as a research and educational center and is designed to be used as a self-guided tour facility for individuals, families, tourists, and organizations. Educational signs along the walkway are an added attraction for school field trips, homeschoolers, scouts, bird watchers, photographers, and anyone who enjoys nature. The boardwalk is also good for some low-impact scenic exercise. You never know what you might see, hear, or discover.
Pistol Creek Wetlands Center is located at 1951 Montvale Station Road, around the corner from Sandy Springs Road.
Important Note: In response to an audience member question at the presentation, Dr. Cash stated that, "The BP oil spill occurred just after the migration peak of birds that travel from South America to Canada. However, the oil spill will affect this migration for years to come."
Fun Facts: Wetlands are some of the most biologically productive natural ecosystems in the world, comparable to tropical rain forests or coral reefs in the number and variety of species they support.
Although wetlands make up only about 5 percent of the land area of the lower 48 states, more than one third of threatened and endangered species live only in wetlands.
As many as one-half of all North American bird species nest or feed in wetlands.