February 2, 2024 is World Wetlands Day – a day to celebrate wetlands and all they do for our planet. It’s also a great time to increase our awareness of the threats wetlands face, and take steps toward their protection and restoration.

What are wetlands?

Wetlands are areas of land that are either covered by water or saturated with water. Oftentimes, the water is groundwater seeping up from an aquifer or spring. A wetland’s water can also be coming from a nearby lake or river. In coastal areas, it may be seawater. Although a wetland is entirely covered by water for at least part of the year, the depth of water in each wetland varies – they are transition zones, neither totally dry land nor totally underwater. Wetlands vary in how they look depending on where you are, and many go by other names such as swamps, peatlands, sloughs, marshes, fens and bogs. 

Why are wetlands important?

Adrian Gallo teaches a class on wetlands at Oregon State. This was before Gallo joined the ICL team as Climate Campaign Coordinator.

Wetlands play a significant role not only for people but our entire planet. Wetlands are crucial in protecting and improving water quality from pollutants, act as erosion and flood control zones, are one of the most biodiverse habitats (second only to coral reefs), and critically important for buffering the effects of climate change. We used to have more than double the amount of wetlands, but they have been lost mostly due to the expansion of farms draining these highly productive soils throughout the 1900s. Despite this, wetlands currently occupy less than 5% of Earth’s landmass — but that small percentage still does a lot of work, holding a similar amount of carbon as all the trees and grasses and plants combined. 

When it comes to water, wetlands act like sponges and reservoirs, absorbing excess water during periods of heavy rain – keeping local communities from flooding, and stabilizing the shorelines of lakes and rivers. Wetlands also help recharge groundwater supply, and help supply water for irrigation and domestic uses. They not only collect excess water, but they help filter out pollutants which is why they’ve been described as the Kidneys of the Earth.”

Wetlands are also home to a wide variety of plant and animal life. The organisms living in the wetlands themselves (plants, fungi, etc.) purify the water. In Idaho, wetlands are the homes of many valuable fisheries and endangered species. Many of these wildlife species bring economic benefits to communities. According to Idaho Fish and Game, nearly 50% of bird species in Idaho rely on wetland and riparian habitats. These habitats also support many other game, nongame, and fish species.  

Along with benefits to water quality and ecosystem and habitat health, wetlands bring many other economic impacts to Idahoans – they provide recreation opportunities and support the outdoor recreation industry.

Idaho’s wetlands

While there are wetlands found across the Gem State, 59 are in the panhandle area of North Idaho, and 13 of those are identified by Idaho’s Department of Fish and Game as Class I, deserving highest conservation priority. They are identified through a rigorous scientific process due to their richness, rarity, and uniqueness. North Idaho is also home to an interesting and rare sub-type of wetland – peat bogs. 

Peat bogs are archives, containing ancient plant spores, pollen, and fossils which can provide great insights into our distant past. These bogs also act as immense holders of carbon. Despite only covering 3% of land surface worldwide, they are said to store an estimated 15-20% of our planet’s carbon reserves — that’s a metric boatload of carbon. Peat bogs are very sensitive to small changes in water chemistry and hydrology, so are susceptible to problems when development or other alterations happen nearby or directly in them. North Idaho is home to several of these bogs, and a couple of the most important are found along the shores of Priest Lake. 

Threats to our wetlands

Water from Triumph mine being discharged into wetlands of the East Fork of the Big Wood River, Blaine County.

Human development has wreaked havoc on our wetlands. According to the UN Environment Program, nearly 90% of the world’s wetlands have been degraded since the 1700s, and we are losing wetlands three times faster than forests. 

Idaho’s wetlands are feeling this impact too, especially as more and more people move to the state, drawn in part by its natural beauty. 

In North Idaho, since most of the waterfront areas that are more appropriate to build on have already been snapped up, more and more often, developers are turning toward building in the wetlands. And unfortunately, it’s pretty easy to get a permit to do so.

One of North Idaho’s Class I peat bogs, a part of the Coolin Chase Lake wetland complex, is currently at the center of great controversy due to a long-fought development proposal. Despite years of community protests, a developer is moving forward with plans to build a subdivision in this wetland. It’s critical that we protect these amazing peat bogs and the history they hold, the resilience and habitat they offer, and the timeless beauty they provide, which is why ICL asked the Army Corps of Engineers to revoke the developer’s permit to fill in a portion of it to build a 4000 sq ft shop.

Meanwhile, on the shores of Lake Pend Oreille, a development proposal is threatening a wetland near Trestle Creek. This serene, hidden refuge provides important habitat for an array of species including bald eagles, beavers, kokanee salmon, and threatened bull trout. If current plans to build a private marina and luxury housing in Trestle Creek and the surrounding wetland moved forward, this special place would join the long list of other wetlands that have been lost to development. But there is hope for Trestle Creek — Idahoans who care about clean water, wildlife, and recreation opportunities are coming together to speak up for the area. You can join them by taking action below!


Trestle Creek.

Pollution is another problem for wetlands. Chemicals and nutrient pollution from communities, farms, lawns, wastewater and other sources can damage wetlands, and even small changes to hydrology and chemistry can have a detrimental effect on sensitive wetlands.

Protecting and restoring our wetlands

Each World Wetland Day has a theme, and this year’s is “Wetlands and Human Wellbeing.” This theme really hits home for all of the issues we work on at ICL — for humans to be healthy, our environment needs to be healthy. And after all, what is Idaho without its clean water and beautiful, natural landscapes? Wetlands are a vital part of ensuring a future for those landscapes and the people, fish, and wildlife that depend on them.

The future of our wetlands is tied to us, and the future of us is tied to our wetlands. Protecting wetlands will help us in the fight against climate change. For a resource that gives us so much (clean water, protecting us from extreme weather events, providing amazing recreation opportunities), we need to do more to protect and restore our wetlands. You can start by taking action for Trestle Creek today by clicking on the button below, and clicking here to sign up for future opportunities to take action on behalf of Idaho’s environment!