In Racine County and across the state, wetlands are one of our most valuable resources — but they’re also one of the most vulnerable. May is American Wetlands Month, a month devoted to celebrating wetlands and their unique benefits to wildlife, landscapes and communities.

Wetlands are places where land meets water. In Wisconsin, we have 12 types of wetlands with a variety of different features. Some, like marshes and bogs, you might recognize. Some, like forested wetlands or wet prairies, may be harder to spot. All wetlands share three features: water above or below the ground for at least a portion of the year, soils saturated with water most of the year, and plants adapted to wet conditions, like cattails and silver maple.

The benefits of wetlands are as varied as wetlands themselves. For wildlife, wetlands provide critical habitat found nowhere else in our landscape: 75 percent of Wisconsin’s wildlife depend on wetlands at some point in their life cycle. In wetlands, fish hatch their young, birds rest during migration, and otters hunt for dinner. Many wetlands are excellent spots for bird-watching, dragonfly spotting, hunting and fishing.

Because wetlands are adapted to changing water levels, they can hold water during heavy rains and prevent flooding: this saves towns and cities from flooded streets and basements, and protects farm fields from being washed out. You might remember the science class analogy that wetlands are sponges that hold and store water on the landscape.

Local wetlands

According to the Wisconsin DNR, approximately 11 percent of Racine County’s land area is currently wetlands. Historically much more of our landscape was wetlands. But as our area was settled and then urbanized, we lost many of our wetlands, especially in the eastern half of the county.

It’s a familiar story for many areas in Wisconsin. Despite the benefits they provide, wetlands have been misunderstood and underappreciated. Draining wetlands for farming, filling wetlands for development, and dividing wetlands with roads, train tracks and power lines have resulted in the loss of half our wetlands statewide. Many of the wetlands that remain are suffering from invasive species, pollution, or fragmentation.

But there’s good news for our area: An estimated 15 percent of the county is potentially restorable wetlands. These are historic wetland areas that were originally drained for agricultural use and have not yet been developed. Many opportunities exist to restore wetlands to the landscape in ways that benefit our cities, farms and wildlife.

Wisconsin’s waters, wildlife and people need healthy wetlands. From restoration of historic wetland areas to legal protection of existing ones, there’s a variety of ways people and communities can care for wetlands. But at the heart of caring for wetlands is caring about them.

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Where to explore

While May is the official month to celebrate wetlands, consider it just the start to your relationship with these special places. In Racine County, you can explore wetlands at the Cherry Lake Sedge Meadow, along the White River State Trail, or at the Tichigan Wildlife Area.

Cherry Lake Sedge Meadow within Honey Creek Wildlife Area in the Town of Rochester. From Rochester, go south 1 mile on County Highway W to the Honey Creek Wildlife Area parking lot. Walk west and southwest 0.5 mile into the area. Website: http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/Lands/naturalareas/index.asp?SNA=120

Along the White River State Trail in western Racine County. The western end of the trail begins at County Highway H near Elkhorn. The eastern end of the trail is at Vandenboom Road in Dover. From Racine or Union Grove take Higway 11 west to Eagle Lake, then turn left onto Vandenboom Road. After about 0.4 miles, a parking lot will be on the left. Website: http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/whiteriver/

Tichigan Wildlife Area in northwest Racine County. It’s approximately 4 miles northwest of the village of Waterford off of Marsh Road and can be accessed off of Marsh Road, Bridge Drive and North Lake Drive. Website: http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/lands/WildlifeAreas/tichigan.html

Want to find wetlands near you? Head to where the frogs are croaking, where herons are wading, or where water rests during rains.

Wetlands matter: get your boots wet and explore one today.

Want to learn more about wetlands and how you can care for them? Wisconsin Wetlands Association, a statewide nonprofit dedicated to wetland protection and care, has wetland resources for individuals, landowners and communities. More information available at www.wisconsinwetlands.org.

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