Dennis Anderson: Draining the Land
Dennis Anderson, Star Tribune
January 23, 2005 ANDY0123
Wetlands, now valued by Minnesotans -- but hardly preserved -- were once considered a scourge, here and elsewhere in the eastern United States.
In part this was because wetlands impeded settlement. For this reason, in 1849, the federal government passed its first Swamplands Act. In the Midwest, some 65 million acres of marshes (about 5 million of which lay in Minnesota) were given to 15 states by the U.S. -- with the provision the wetlands be drained to clear the way for settlers and their crops.
Beginning in the 1850s, settlers regularly arrived in southern and western Minnesota. Much about the area attracted them, but not its marshes and the hordes of mosquitoes they produced. Threatening also were the grassfires that occasionally swept across the prairie.
The vast wetlands of southern and western Minnesota were home to countless ducks and other wildlife that in many instances provided food for settlers. Ultimately, however, they proved more valuable drained and plowed.
In Minnesota, drainage was authorized by the State Drainage Commission, which included the governor, secretary of state and auditor, and between 1901 and 1930, the commission -- aided by county drainage commissions -- drained the 5 million acres given the state by the federal government.
The arrival of settlers in Minnesota was accompanied over the years by the introduction in wetlands of non-native plants such as curly-leaf pondweed, reed canary grass, purple loosestrife and Eurasian watermilfoil. Each has altered the composition of wetlands and their ability to sustain native organisms and wildlife.
Muskrats, for example, were once wildly abundant in Minnesota's southern wetlands. Now they are not.
In 1836, Joseph Laframboise, a French-Indian trader, told a visitor to his southwest Minnesota trading post of the plentiful wildlife in the area. "I have plenty of buffalo robes," he said. "We can give you plenty of buffalo meat and tongues, wild geese, and ducks, prairie hens, young swan, beaver tails, pigeons ... there is plenty of sport here and in a short distance you will find buffalo."
Unwanted by the settlers, however, were other wildlife spawned by the area's landscape, especially blackbirds, which feasted on farmers' grain.
In 1913, the Lake Wilson (Minn.) Pilot newspaper quoted farmer Charles Swan, saying: "The progressive farmers out there feel that the time has come when they can no longer afford to have a duck and rat pond represent a part of their farms when it can and will represent the best paying part."
Urban areas also drained
All across the United States, at the turn of the last century, wetlands were being drained -- not only in rural areas, but in and near cities. Diseases, particularly malaria, were linked to "swamplands," further arguing for their drainage.
Manifest destiny and its variations -- including national pride, purpose and identity -- also influenced the nationwide conversion of wetlands to croplands.
An effort was even made in some quarters to demonize wetlands. In 1851, Louisiana Sen. Solomon Downs characterized wetlands as "evils" requiring "redemption."
It is now known that much of this thinking was backward: Rather than a source, essentially, of death, wetlands encourage life, including that of people.
But too much money was to be gained between 1850 and 1950 not to drain wetlands as readily as possible.
Aiding this effort was the establishment throughout the countryside, like fingers, of railways, each of which served as a conduit by which settlers and other property owners could move commodities to market.
And evermore commodities were needed, because the East Coast was fast becoming urbanized.
Speeding changes -- and facilitating further wetland loss -- were advancements in the design and production of ditch-digging machines.
Fight to save wetlands
In 1951, the Minnesota Conservation Department, forerunner to the DNR, began a "Save the Wetlands" program. The effort was begun with a relative pittance -- $50,000 -- considering the money spent on drainage.
Still, the program has yielded results, and today wetlands saved beginning in the 1950s represent individual properties in the state's Wildlife Management Area system.
But the "Save the Wetlands" plan and its progeny never have stopped wetland drainage. In Cerro Gordo Township in Lac qui Parle County, for instance, there were 1,668 acres of wetlands in 1954, 627 acres in 1962 and fewer than 400 in 1972.
Today, across Minnesota, there are far fewer still. Worse, many wetlands that remain are degraded by rapid fluctuations of water levels; the presence of carp, fathead minnows and other fish; and the almost total absence, in some cases, of native vegetation favored by ducks and other wildlife.
Sources: "Discovering the Unknown Landscape, A History of America's Wetlands," (Island Press) by Ann Vileisis; "Draining the Great Oasis, An Environmental History of Murray County, Minnesota," (Crossings Press) edited by Anthony J. Amato, Janet Timmerman and Joseph A. Amato; "A History of Drainage Law in Minnesota With Special Emphasis on the Legal Status of Wetlands," (Water Resources Research Center, University of Minnesota) by K. Elton King.
AHEAD | NEXT IN THIS SERIES
The impact of carp on wetlands and wildlife. Changing farming practices. The importance of grasslands to duck production. Minnow and fish-rearing in Minnesota wetlands and their effects on wetland quality. And what of the future -- can wetlands and clean water be restored in Minnesota? If so, how?
The Audacity of Bull Crap.
"Typical: Gun-loving, bitter bible-thumping white person" Barack Obama.
Hey I resemble that comment!!! Those are FIGHTING WORDS!!!