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May is time to celebrate wetlands

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner Community Perspective

FAIRBANKS — Did you know the month of May is dedicated to American wetlands? For a quarter of a century the United States Environmental Protection Agency, with its many partners, celebrate American wetlands and encourage us all to partake. Wetlands are vital to our watersheds, yet many of us do not even know what they are.

Have you ever come across a piece of wet land with saturated soil or even standing water? Congratulations, because you may have just come across a wetland! The term wetland generalizes what we commonly call marshes, swamps, spruce or peat bogs and fens. These lands are not necessarily wet or saturated all year round, as some wetlands are seasonal. Wetlands are the transitional zones between water bodies and land, which is why they are critical during floods. They allow a buffering space for excess water to flow into for storage and filtration. Imagine wetlands as our kidneys in removing toxic and excess nutrients and as our bladder in storing liquid before it’s eliminated. Wetlands hold and purify water as well as recycle nutrients before it is slowly absorbed by plants and flows into other waterbodies or lands.

The presence of unique plants well adapted to the water-laden soils, called hydric soils, distinguish these areas from other ecological systems or water bodies. Some Interior Alaskan wetland plants are paper birch, rosemary, violets, blackberry and sedges. Wetlands are also important habitats for an abundant mix of different birds, mammals and fish.

Here in Alaska, we can commonly find wetlands along our rivers and deltas, including the Interior Yukon River, Kuskokwim River, and Koyukuk River systems. Within our Tanana Valley watershed we find them along the Chena, Salcha and Tanana Rivers. Wetlands used to make up 43.3 percent of Alaska’s surface area. By comparison, wetlands compromise 5.2 percent of the land in the Lower 48. In recent years, threats have continued to degrade the dwindling numbers of wetlands. We have lost much to development, diverting water flow away from wetlands (through actions such as channelization, dredging and draining) and increasing stresses to wetland plants.

So what can you do to help? Consider supporting initiatives, programs, and organizations working to restore and protect wetlands within the borough. Are you interested in preventing changes to wetlands near you? Would you be open to maintaining and increasing strips of vegetation alongside wetlands? For more information, please see the following sources:

• Environmental Protection Agency. (2015). May is American wetlands month — learn, explore, take action. http://water.epa.gov/type/wetlands/outreach/#what.

• Environmental Protection Agency. (2015). Threats to wetlands. water.epa.gov/type/wetlands/outreach/upload/threats.pdf.

• Status of Alaska wetlands can be accessed online at www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CZIC-gb625-a4-h35-1994/html/CZIC-gb625-a4-h35-1994.htm.

• Kusler, J.A., and Kusler, J. (2009). Protecting and restoring wetlands — a guide for land trusts. Interior Land Trust. www.aswm.org/pdf_lib/land_trust_011509.pdf.

• Lichvar, R.W., M. Butterwick, N.C. Melvin, and W.N. Kirchner. 2014. The national wetland plant list: 2014 update of wetland ratings.  www.poa.usace.army.mil/Portals/34/docs/regulatory/2014AKWetlandPlantList.pdf.

• Society of Wetland Scientists Alaska Chapter, available through the website: http://www.sws.org/alaska-chapter.

Irene Holak works as the Science Director for the Tanana Valley Watershed Association, located on 516 2nd Avenue, Lathrop Building Suite 412, Fairbanks, Alaska 99701. Questions can be directed by phone (907-374-8890) or by email to tvwatershed@gmail.com. The TVWA is online at www.tvwatershed.org.

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