A Wander in the Wetlands

Should protections afforded to U.S. waters by the Clean Water Act extend to wetlands?

wetland muck from a spring thaw

Peter Ralston pointed his camera at the muck underfoot while on a wetland walk on Isle au Haut. “Nothing special, very quiet,” the photographer says. “Makes me think of something Rachel Carson said of tide pools containing ‘mysterious worlds within their depths.’”

By Philip Conkling
Photo by Peter Ralston
From our March 2023 issue

An early-morning walk with a four-year-old at the end of endless winter is usually an adventure, especially when the four-year-old is a dog that can smell the scent of creatures neither of us can see. A few years ago, my companion and I came across a mysterious trail in new snow at the edge of a dense tangle of forested wetland. I could see no footprints and puzzled over a trough, six inches wide, that snaked through the woods towards the sand-and-shingle beach. 

Quite a while later, it dawned on me that the trail must have been left by an otter, dragging its long, heavy tail through the wet snow. The dog had been entranced, surely by the musty scents left by this larger cousin of minks and skunks. Eventually, the dog found the otter’s den under an unused tractor shed at the edge of the adjacent property. Its piles of droppings gave away its location, where it was able to crawl under the low foundation. Thereafter, we always made a point of saying hello to the otter on our morning walk and went on our way.

Several years later, we found the otter at the entrance of his burrow, expired after an apparently long life. The dog and I thought it only right that we commit his remains to the sea that had sustained him for the years of our acquaintance. And so we did. May his bones rest in pieces, below the tide.

There is an ongoing legal debate about whether protections afforded to U.S. waters extend to wetlands, like the one where our friend lived. A case before the current term of the U.S. Supreme Court, known as Sackett vs. EPA, challenges existing federal regulations that protect wetlands adjacent to federally protected “navigable waters,” including streams, rivers, and ocean waters. The plaintiffs wish to see the current rules rolled back, and a decision will come from a Court that has lately seemed critical of the federal government’s reach in protecting the environment.

The wooded wetland where we saw signs of the otter still supports mallards and geese during the late-spring nesting season, as well providing forage for a year-round family of deer and a secure path for an occasional raccoon on its way to the beach and for any number of rabbits and small, elusive rodents. These creatures, in turn, help feed the barred owl that periodically visits the woods, which also provide roosting spots for ospreys, eagles, and a murder of crows that patrols the edge of the bay. 

These willowy, alder-y, and windthrown thickets might be “improved” by cutting blowdowns and constructing trails, which could arguably recruit more of us into the fold of those who value these diminishing landscapes of wildness. Or by being filled and built upon, as the Sacketts of the lawsuit wish to do upon “their” wetland.

But we can also acknowledge the dawning recognition that, in towns across Maine, more of us are pushing farther into the state’s legacy wildlands (not to be confused with “wilderness”). Most of Maine east of the I-95 corridor was settled at one time and has since reverted to extensive areas of second-growth woodlands. Maine has room for the newcomers who are knocking on our door, seeking “the way life should be,” many leaving behind places that face severe impacts from a changing climate. But we should be mindful that it is rare that we can improve on nature, even when she is arguably messy.