West Virginia's Wonderful Wetlands

Jim Anderson
Wildlife and Fisheries Professor

WVU - Davis College of Ag.
Forestry, and Consumer Sciences
William N. Grafton
Wildlife Specialist
WVU Extension Service
This article was published in the August 2001 issue of West Virginia Farm Bureau News.

Wetlands covered an estimated 221 million acres of the contiguous 48 states in colonial days. More than 53% of those wetlands have been drained or filled. West Virginia is estimated to have 102,000 acres of wetlands, which is less than 1 percent of the state's land area. This amount is 24% less than the 134,000 acres present in the late 1700s.

Although West Virginia has fewer wetlands than many states primarily because of its rugged topography, there are some well-known wetlands in the state. Some better known wetlands in western West Virginia are McClintic, Green Bottom, Blennerhassett, Boaz, Williamstown, and Winfield. Wetland complexes in the southern mountains occur on Marsh Fork, Raleigh County; Meadow River, Greenbrier County; Meadow Creek, Fayette County; and Muddlety Creek, Nicholas County. Well-known wetlands of the high mountains include Cranberry Glides, Canaan Valley, Dolly Sods, Pine Swamp, and Cranesville Swamp. Two popular wetlands in the Eastern Panhandle are Altona-Piedmont Marsh and Town Marsh. Numerous other small wetlands occur throughout the state.

Wetlands are known by a variety of names. Types of wetlands occurring in West Virginia are aquatic, bogs, marshes, swamps, riparian (streamside), seeps, and wet meadows. Numerous wetlands occur where man-made structures, such as roads and railroads, impound water. They also are found around the margins of lakes and farm ponds. Most wetlands are dominated by grasses, forbs, shrubs, or trees.

Wetlands are definitely not "waste lands." Important components of the landscape, they serve the following valuable functions:

  • agricultural uses
  • flood prevention
  • wildlife habitat
  • pollution and sediment control
  • recreation areas and aesthetics
  • groundwater recharge

Wetlands have always been highly productive wildlife habitats. Birdwatchers visit wetlands to see and photograph bald eagles, red-winged blackbirds, kingfishers, tree swallows, and many other birds and wildlife. Ducks, geese, herons, and woodcocks depend on wetlands, as do fish, turtles, frogs, and crayfish. Beaver, muskrat, mink, and raccoon require wetland habitats for feeding and reproducing.

Wetlands provide economic benefits without being filled or drained. Some wetland owners trap fur-bearing mammals, raise fish (aquaculture or baitfish), or have fee hunting and fishing operations. Wetlands supply cash crops of cranberries, blueberries, and peat moss.

Wetland plants can remove toxic contaminants from water and soil. They can absorb agricultural fertilizer, nutrients, and pesticides before they pollute waterways. Wetlands also have been used in treating acid mine drainage from abandoned coal mines. Many West Virginia farmers manage wet meadows and hayfields as insurance to provide forage during dry periods. These wetlands may be the only productive fields during the 10-year cyclical droughts.

Many West Virginia wetlands function naturally without any assistance from people. Others may need to be managed with water level control devices or by controlled grazing, mowing, or burning. Managed wetlands can be more productive than naturally functioning wetlands, but expenses also are greater. The amount of effort required-to manage water control devices depends on the type used. Simple metal pipe risers without stop logs automatically prevent water from rising above a predetermined height. Structures that allow the water level to be manipulated from completely dry to a maximum set height require more management and a greater time commitment.

West Virginia's wetlands are a small portion of the landscape, but they provide valuable benefits and products to their owners and to society.