A history of wetlands in Michigan: Part 3

Early state settlers thought wetlands were teaming with disease.

When the first Europeans arrived, Michigan boasted 10.7 million acres of wetlands covering more than 17 percent of the state’s total land area. Photo: Michigan Sea Grant

When the first Europeans arrived, Michigan boasted 10.7 million acres of wetlands covering more than 17 percent of the state’s total land area. Photo: Michigan Sea Grant

This three-part series explores the historic role of wetlands in Michigan and more contemporary understandings of the full benefits that wetlands provide to both human and natural communities. Michigan State University Extension and Michigan Sea Grant have several education and restoration efforts focused on wetland habitat. Part One and Part Two of this series outlined the ecological and economic benefits that wetlands bring to Michigan. Part Three discusses the history of land use change in Michigan and how it has shaped the state’s modern wetlands.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) estimates that when the first Europeans arrived, Michigan boasted 10.7 million acres of wetlands covering more than 17 percent of the state’s total land area. Early settlers viewed Michigan’s extensive wetlands as a dangerous wasteland, unsuitable for agriculture and teaming with disease. Malaria was extremely common in Michigan in those days and early doctors believed the illness to be caused by noxious air emitted from wetlands. In fact the word malaria derives from the Italian phrase “mal’aria” meaning “bad air.”

Settlers soon found engineering solutions to solve what they saw as the problem of wetlands, filling in or draining enormous tracts of land. According the MDEQ, over the next 200 years Michigan would see more than 4.2 million acres of wetlands destroyed, an area larger than the states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined. A recent report released by MDEQ provides a summary of changes to Michigan wetlands from 1800 to 2005. According to the report the largest drivers of wetland loss were conversion to agriculture (47 percent of wetland loss) and development (49 percent of wetland loss). Coastal wetlands were hit hardest with 71 percent lost. Geographically the southeast region of the state saw the highest rates of wetland destruction. Indeed every coastal county from Bay down to Monroe has lost more than 80 percent of pre-settlement wetlands. Many contemporary environmental challenges including declining fisheries, water quality concern and flooding are closely tied to this historic decline in wetland acreage.

The rate of wetland loss has slowed significantly since the 1970s with passage of several state and national protection measures. Today it is illegal to fill, dredge or drain a regulated wetland in Michigan without a special permit. However, MDEQ estimates that the rate of wetland loss still outpaces efforts to create or restore wetlands and new threats to wetland habitat are emerging such as invasive species and climate change. Even alongside these challenges emerging technologies such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and satellite imagery make tracking changes in wetlands overtime much easier and provide valuable data in the struggle to preserve Michigan’s remaining wetlands.

Michigan Sea Grant helps to foster economic growth and protect Michigan’s coastal, Great Lakes resources through education, research and outreach. A collaborative effort of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, Michigan Sea Grant is part of the NOAA-National Sea Grant network of 33 university-based programs.

Read the entire series:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

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