Monday, September 26, 2011

There are wetlands in the sky. No, really.

Yes, yes, it’s a blog called “Wetlandia” and I haven’t talked about wetlands yet.  Settle down.

I’m reading a book called “The Wild Trees” by Robert Preston – a sort of pop-ecology book of the kind that often annoys me because the narratives are almost always preachy and they’re usually populated by smug and affluent wearers of fleece and tevas.  The first 2/3 of the book is no exception: the author traces the masculinist journeys of a set of boys (and only a few girls), outcasts and creative thinkers, overeducated children of privilege, who want to see what’s up in the redwood canopy 350 feet off the ground.  This collection of people is appealingly odd, but when I say masculinist I mean in the way that so much of what passes for countercultural behavior and eco-political activism has an incredibly male tone.  Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitare was populated by a bunch of boys acting very male.  The guys in Preston’s book are Peter Pans in the trees – the two main characters are, in particular, come across (at least initially) as very tiresome men-children, although I suspect Preston overplays them in this regard.  The redwood canopy is an awesome place.  Using it as the backdrop for nerdboys to bed their beautiful research assistants makes it a less awesome place.  But I get it -- you have to humanize the topic.

But this is not a book review.  What really made me sit up is that about 2/3 of the way through the book, the author gets around to describing the hydrology of the redwood canopy.  Now, keep in mind that these are the tallest trees in the world, and the largest organisms that aren’t landscape-sized fungi.  The meat of the book revolves around the notion that canopy space is a vast ocean above us (to use Rachel Carson’s analogy of the atmosphere), and that it’s full of different ecosystems, different species and different habitats.  And it is never, never, visited by people.  In fact, entirely new climbing techniques have had to be invented just to transport the handful of people who’ve ever bothered to try.  And this: redwood trees often have large boles or crotches in their canopy where the central leader dies and the crown sprouts around it, creating a kind of basin 300 feet in the air.  Big ones, the size of small meadows.  These can fill up with soil several feet thick, with hydrophytic plants, and provide habitat for permanent communities of salamanders and other aquatic species.  A-ha.

So what it comes down to is this.  There are wetlands in the rainforest canopy.  Wetlands with permanently saturated soils.  Wetlands that meet all of the criteria laid down in the 1987 manual, the 1989 manual and probably even the crap 1991 manual.  Until the SWANCC decision of 2001, hell, they were probably jurisdictional wetlands in the air!  And if the current draft EPA/Corps guidance on establishing jurisdiction by finding a nexus between a wetland and a navigable river can be applied in just the right way, they may still be jurisdictional (and therefore protected by the Clean Water Act’s Section 404 permit program).  Some of these trees are rooted in floodplains, and so the wetlands are connected to navigable waters by the tree itself -- are they "neighboring" in EPA/Corps' sense?  Should the list of (a)(3) "other waters" be amended to include airborne wetlands? Of course, they might fall under the silviculture exemption, and it’s hard to imagine how you might trigger a 404 permit by dredging or filling in the upper redwood canopy.  But that’s not the point.  The point is that we can look up to see the bottom of a wetland.

For a wetland regulator, this is somewhat mindblowing.  The stats that Preston presents are impressive, and he seems to have consulted with some good hydrologists.  A hectare of canopy can hold thousands of liters of water, and take an immensely long time to both dry out and recharge.  The canopy does not only hold water (yeah, that’s just “canopy interception” to a mass-balance hydrology equation), it holds them in wetland ecosystems.

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