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The Voices of Spring

I grew up on the shores of a small lake in southern Michigan. To this day, I can clearly recall the choir of natural voices, from the returning geese and red-winged blackbirds to the awakening frogs, heralding the arrival of spring. The marshy areas around the lake were the stage for the most exuberant performances, from the high pitched “kon-ka-rees” of the courting blackbirds to the booming bass notes of the bullfrogs.

Ecologists call wetlands “productive habitat” because they provide many critical ecological functions such as nursery, foodbank, and shelter for wildlife. Wetlands also act as natural “sponges” that store and filter storm water, helping to reduce flooding and polluted runoff that can degrade water quality. If this isn’t enough, the rich organic soil found in marshlands also helps to reduce greenhouse gas levels by capturing and storing carbon.

Over the past one hundred and fifty years, Wisconsin—like much of the Great Lakes region—has lost more than half of its original wetlands. Often regarded as “useless swamps” or impediments to agriculture and development, our natural wetlands have been drained, filled, paved over, and otherwise dispatched. The man-made, engineered alternatives that some developers create to offset wetlands destruction rarely match the quality or functionality of nature’s design.

Yet we continue to destroy and degrade our wetlands, even though for decades scientists have made a compelling case for protecting them. Doing so will not only safeguard habitat for the heralds of spring (and myriad other quieter species) but also protect our water quality, water supply, and the hydrological systems that flow beneath and through our communities.

I’m of a generation whose impressions about the environment were shaped by Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Leopold made the case that the land is a community of which we are part; Carson sounded the alarm about the impact of DDT and similar pesticides on this community. Both drew their conclusions from scientific observation, and also made persuasive ethical arguments for safeguarding the environment. Both Leopold and Carson were gifted writers and visionary thinkers. Each paid a price—Carson in particular—for publicly raising larger concerns revealed through science.

Yet we are richer today for their advocacy, which deepened our understanding of our relationship with the natural world, and helped keep spring full of song and life. Leopold wrote of this convergence of science and advocacy in Round River, noting that “an ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”

As we mark another change of season, when the voices of sandhill cranes join those of the spring peepers, consider that they depend on us—and we on them—for a healthy place to live. I also invite you to consider the importance of scientists who ask us to pay attention to the data, engage our logical and ethical faculties, and support policy informed by science. Theirs, too, are the voices of spring that should never be silenced.

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Jane Elder recently retired from her position as Executive Director of the Wisconsin Academy. She brought to the Wisconsin Academy a strong background in public policy leadership, nonprofit management, and involvement in Wisconsin arts.

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