Wetland Management

Wetland Environments
Firooza Pavri and J.S. Aber

Table of Contents
Valuing wetlands Determining value
Restoring wetlands Making policy
Protecting wetlands Source literature

Valuing Wetland Resources

Assigning an anthropocentric value to a natural resource is a challenging task. Resource valuation varies based on whether the task is addressed from an ecological, economic, or socio-cultural perspective. Yet, despite the complexity of the task at hand, valuing resources is undertaken with some routine. Wetlands provide innumerable services that necessitate their careful management. But, before this can occur, we must be able to recognize the value of wetlands and their ontributions to society at large. This is already apparent in recent efforts within the United States to protect and restore wetland habitats. Visit the
EPA web site on wetlands to read more about the services provided by wetlands and their current status. Following Mitsch and Gooselink (2000) and Cutter and Renwick (1999), we consider a few ways in which wetlands are valued.

I. Wetlands valued for their products

II. Wetlands valued for their ecosystem contributions

Wetlands provide innumerable services to local, regional and global ecosystems. These include, improving water quality through the removal of toxins, organic and inorganic nutrients, enhancing groundwater recharge, lowering the impact of storms (hurricanes), stabilizing river banks and reducing erosion, lessening the impact of flood events, and storing floodwaters. Furthermore, wetlands also play significant roles in global biogeochemical cycles, such as the exchange and storage of nitrogen, sulfur, methane and carbon.

III. Quantifying an economic value for wetlands

Economic mechanisms exist whereby goods and services and in turn natural resources can be utilized, exchanged, and valued within society. In most cases the monetary value set by these mechanisms, is determined by the price of the goods or services.

Valuing any resource in economic terms is a tricky process. Yet, humans have been quite successful in doing so. Consider, for instance, that humans are willing to pay for umpteen number of goods and services from basic food and water, to police and fire protection, to cell phone service. Similarly, the economic value for wetlands can be arrived at employing different mechanisms to gauge how much society is willing to pay.

Generally one would imagine this to be fairly easy to do based on supply and demand (for a market economy). However, this process is sometimes further complicated when we try to set a price for the "quality" of the environment, or the aesthetic and/or intrinsic value of resources such as wetlands. Examples show that we have managed to do this relatively well. Think of the Clean Air Act, which includes stipulations as to how much we can pollute, and then it taxes those industries that go over the limit. Think of lead-free gasoline - same thing here - setting pollution limits. Or think of the Clean Water Act, which indirectly protects wetland environments from pollution. So, society has discovered mechanisms whereby we can ensure that natural resources are safe guarded.

How to determine a
natural resource’s value

How exactly do environmental economists come up with ways by which to assign a value to resources? Two commonly used ways are noted below. When reading about these methods of valuation, think about how you might apply them to determine the value/cost of delineating a wetland region for protection.

Cost-benefit analysis is a process that we also utilize in our every day activities – consider for instance when you shop for something – you weigh the cost against how you benefit from it. In addition, you also bring intangibles into the equation. For instance, the cost of buying organic products is higher than regular products, but you might still buy organic because you consider it to be more environmentally friendly, helping smaller farmers, or you might be thinking in terms of the long-term health benefits from eating organically grown foods, etc.

Economists are constantly undertaking similar, yet more formal, studies. Say for example a dam is to be constructed within a defined region. An environmental engineer would first undertake a cost-benefit analysis for that dam. This would involve some sort of quantification of all aspects of the dam proposed. Tally up the costs (in terms of dam construction, land lost to reservoir, loss to farming, cutting down trees that might exist there, harming animal life), and benefits (quantify how many people are going to benefit from the dam - water and electricity generation, maybe used as a tourist spot, etc.) and then consider its economic and/or environmental viability.

At times, however, it may be more difficult assess costs or assign a price. For instance, how does one put a price on an area contributing as a tourist/outdoor recreation spot. One possible way maybe by calculating the potential number of people that will be visiting and using the area. To simplify assigning a cost to something that is difficult to quantify, environmental economists will often assign a shadow price to these incommensurables. These are effects—can be costs or benefits—that are difficult to translate into a monetary price. For example, an environmental economist might assign a shadow price to the loss of hunting privileges from people hunting in a wetland that is being drained for a golf course. There are two common ways of fixing a shadow price.

  1. Willingness to pay - users asked how much they are willing to pay to have access to a particular resource. For example, the hunters and bird watchers of a wetland would be given a survey that asked them to put a monetary value on how much they would be willing to pay as park entrance fees or hunting fees to preserve the wetland. Their answer, of course, would depend on how much they enjoyed this activity, whether they had access to other wetlands, etc. Their answers would then be averaged to come to a price (also termed an “avoidance” price) - or here is how much the users are willing to pay/year to save the wetland - either because they enjoy walking there or hunting there.

  2. Replacement cost - similar to willingness to pay. How much is a user willing to pay to replace something that is lost? How much would a hunter or birder be willing to pay to replace a wetland that was drained?

Now that you have some sense of how resources are valued, let us consider different wetland restoration and management practices in greater detail.

Wetland restoration and management

During the past two decades, wetland restoration has become an increasingly important activity as humans realize the ecological value of these resources. The EPA websites provide excellent discussions on wetland restoration. Please read notes at the following websites.

  • Wetland Restoration—EPA definitions & distinctions.
  • Wetland Restoration—EPA guiding principles.
  • Wetland Restoration—EPA benefits of restoration.
  • Public policy making

    At the federal level, the government protects wetlands through regulations, incentives, or disincentives, and through acquiring ecosystems of note to establish wildlife refuges. Similarly, states also enact laws to regulate wetland management and other activities, such as how and where development is allowed. For example, many coastal states have tried to stem coastal wetland decline through coastal protection laws and building restrictions.

    More recently wetland managers have recognized that just providing incentives or disincentives might not be enough to protect wetlands. Rather, they argue, promoting partnerships between the federal, state, and local governments, and private and non-governmental organizations (NGO) to protect sensitive sites has shown more promise. This partnering approach often incorporates a more holistic management style that considers the entire watershed surrounding a wetland, rather than narrowly concentrating on just one particular site. The North American Wildlife Management Plan (NAWMP) is an example of this approach.


    The U.S. Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation program is among the most successful wetland conservation efforts. Sales of "duck stamps" fund maintenance and expansion of the National Wildlife Refuge System. Vintage Kansas hunting and fishing license with 1956 duck stamp affixed. For more background, go to U.S. duck stamps.

    Policy is a course of action (or a framework of goals) that is arrived at by governments, or institutions, or individuals. Public policy (in a democracy) is made by officials in government representing the ideals of larger society. The policy making process is a rather lengthy one, which starts with the recognition of an issue or problem and ends with evaluation and termination of a policy once the expressed goals are reached. The process contains the following stages.

    As Cutter and Renwick (1999) pointed out, there are several key participants in the policy making arena. These include resource managers, social agents and special interest groups among others. Each plays an important role in the entire process and while conflicts often arise between these different players, one generally observes compromise and cooperation before policies are implemented.

    Legal protection efforts

    In the United States primary legal protection of wetlands is contained in Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, the Swampbuster provision in the Food Security Act, and the no net loss policy. At the international level, Ramsar Convention is the key mechanism for identification and protection of wetland habitats.

    EPA wetland laws.
    Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.


    Return to wetlands syllabus.
    EB/ES/GE 341 © J.S. Aber (2016).