Habitat, filtration, sequestration: Wetlands like the ones at the Conoy Wetlands preserve in Lancaster serve critical environmental roles

Lancaster

BAINBRIDGE, Pa. (WHTM) — On Tuesday evening, Keith Williams and Scott McDaniel led a group of about a dozen people off the paved Northwest River Trail and into the waist-high wetland foliage at the Conoy Wetlands Nature Preserve. We trekked through the mud and dodged the occasional poison ivy to search for frogs, toads, and salamanders — some animals that commonly inhabit this ecosystem.

National Geographic calls wetlands “some of the most valuable ecosystems on Earth.” They provide critical habitat for amphibians and other organisms. Many plants and animals live and reproduce in these ecosystems, including numerous threatened and endangered species in Pennsylvania.

Wetlands help filter and purify water, removing sediments and nitrogen and phosphorous that can impair waterways. They also sequester carbon in vegetation and sediments, which helps to mitigate climate change. An NRDC article estimates that the world’s wetlands store an amount of carbon equivalent to the emissions of about 189 million cars each year.

On top of that, wetlands help control flooding by absorbing excess water during rain events, and they help prevent soil erosion.

Located along the Susquehanna River, the Conoy Wetlands Nature Preserve is actually a wetland complex, explains Keith Williams, community engagement coordinator with the Lancaster Conservancy.

Simply put, wetlands are places “where land and water meet. They’re not quite dry, they’re not quite wet, they’re a mix,” Williams said. There are a handful of different types of wetlands, and Williams explains that several of them can be found at the Conoy Wetlands Nature Preserve.

As part of Lancaster Water Week, organized by the Lancaster Conservancy, Williams and Scott McDaniel, executive director of the Susquehannock Wildlife Society, led a hike through the wetlands to showcase the diverse species they support.

“We get a lot of salamanders, like the spotted salamander…and the marbled salamander, as well as things like wood frogs and spring peepers, those really, really loud little tree frogs that you hear in the spring,” McDaniel said. Snakes and turtles also make use of these ecosystems.

Off-roading in wetlands isn’t normally a good idea because people can damage important habitats or track foreign organisms into the area, but just this once, Williams and McDaniel led us away from the trail. As we filed through the flora, McDaniels ducked into the weeds and came up with a toad.

Toads, salamanders, turtles, and even bugs like diving beetles rely on wetlands. But “as wetlands disappear more and more…we start losing more of these species, and specifically amphibians,” Williams said.

Factors like development, drier weather due to climate change, overgrowth of invasive plants, and deforestation have all contributed to the loss of wetlands, explain Williams and McDaniel.

According to the Department of Environmental Protection, Pennsylvania lost approximately 28,000 acres of wetlands between 1956 and 1979, averaging a loss of 1,200 acres each year. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that the state lost more than half of its wetland area from the 1780s to the 1980s.

“We’re seeing really a global decline in amphibian abundance and diversity, and it’s really a scary prospect,” Williams said.

Amphibians eat insects, including mosquitoes, and help prevent them from becoming too much of a nuisance. They also are a food source for many other animals like fish and birds. “It’s all part of the fabric that is biodiversity, that makes up the ecosystem, and so each species is a string in that fabric. So as we pull strings out of that fabric, it’s going to fall apart,” Williams said.

Amphibians’ role in the ecosystem does benefit people by controlling insect populations and helping maintain other species we enjoy, but regardless of the purpose they serve for humans, Williams said, “Reptiles, amphibians deserve to be here because they are, as much as you and I deserve to be here because we are.”

While the decline in amphibians is partially due to things like diseases affecting some amphibian populations or poor water quality impacting their health, “it really all comes back down to loss of habitat,” Williams said.

The good news is there are things we can do to help protect wetlands and their inhabitants. According to a March 2020 “Pennsylvania Waterways and Wetlands Update” to the DCNR’s Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan, the state began gaining back wetland acreage in the 1980s.

Preserving and protecting wetlands is an important part of maintaining these environments and the species they support, says Williams. Encouraging native plant growth in and near wetlands can also help ensure that they continue to exist and fill their ecological roles, McDaniel adds.

Williams also urges individuals not to spray herbicide in wetlands on their property, or even in small ditches — which Williams says are technically wetlands, too — where the rainwater flows (the rain will carry the harmful chemicals into larger wetlands and waterways).

During Lancaster Water Week, individuals are encouraged to learn about the county’s water resources through events like this hike in the Conoy Wetlands Nature Preserve. Water Week runs through June 12, and upcoming events are listed on the Lancaster Conservancy’s website.

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