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Has New York state lost 99% of its historical range of wetlands?
If Your Time is short
• New York state has not lost 99% of its wetlands. Ryan’s office acknowledged that they had mistakenly used the figure for New York City and they changed the figure to 60% after we inquired.
• The 60% figure dates back to federal studies published in the early 1990s. That’s more than 30 years old.
• However, the limited studies that have been conducted since then have found only modest changes, and several experts said they do not expect that the percentage of wetland loss has changed dramatically in the past three decades.
New York state Sen. Sean M. Ryan, who represents a district that runs north and south of Buffalo, recently wrote an op-ed that urged increasing conservation protections for wetlands.
"New York's wetlands are important to nearly every living being in our state," Ryan wrote in the op-ed, which originally appeared on March 3 on the website of the conservation group Ducks Unlimited. "They provide critical habitat for species like ducks, deer, and turkeys – and you may already know that they are home to nearly half of the threatened and endangered species in the state."
Ryan added that other benefits of wetlands range "from absorbing flooding and storm surge, to filtering water of pollutants and acting as one of the most effective carbon sinks," which helps mitigate climate change.
In the op-ed, Ryan outlined the scope of wetland losses in recent decades.
"Despite all of these benefits, our wetlands are constantly under threat," Ryan wrote in the op-ed. "New York state has already lost 99% of its historic freshwater wetlands."
The 99% figure seemed high, so we checked with Ryan’s office.
Cody Meyers, Ryan’s chief of staff, acknowledged to PolitiFact New York that the figure was mistaken. Meyers said the 99% figure referred to the percentage of wetland habitat losses since 1600 in New York City, rather than New York state. After we contacted Ryan’s office about the percentage, they changed the figure in the op-ed to 60%, where it remains.
But what about the 60% figure? Is it accurate?
The figure stems from a 1991 report titled, "Wetlands: Status and Trends in the Coterminous United States, Mid-1970s to Mid-1980s." The report was co-authored by two specialists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a federal agency.
The report determined that New York state had lost 60% of its wetlands by the end of the 1980s. It was one of 22 states that had lost at least half of their wetlands by then, the report said. The 60% figure also appears in another federal report from 1990, "Wetlands: Losses in the United States, 1780s to 1980s."
However, these reports are more than 30 years old. In fact, in his op-ed, Ryan acknowledges the difficulty of using old data: He writes that one of the shortcomings with current state wetlands law is that it only protects wetlands "12.4 acres and larger that appear on a set of jurisdictional maps. These maps were created in the 1970s and 1980s with outdated technology, leading to nearly 1 million acres of wetlands lacking any state-level protection."
So we checked with independent experts to see if any more recent data existed.
Tom Langen, a professor of biology at Clarkson University, told PolitiFact New York that he wasn’t aware of any comprehensive studies in the last two decades.
One study published in 2000, "Wetlands Status and Trend Analysis of New York State Mid-1980’s to Mid-1990’s," found a net gain of 17,619 acres of wetlands from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s in five geographic zones in New York state. The gains were largely due to farmland abandonment, beaver proliferation, and restoration efforts.
However, these increases accounted for less than 1% of the state’s existing wetlands acreage, They also didn’t encompass the entire state, making it hard to draw broader conclusions.
Overall, Langen said, he’s doubtful that there’s been a substantial change from the 60% figure.
Nicholas A. Robinson, an emeritus professor of law at Pace University who specializes in environmental law, agreed that it’s unlikely that there’s been a significant change in wetland cover since the studies in the early 1990s, and that 60% is likely still a safe figure to use.
The scale of historical losses is so significant, Robinson said, that "measures are needed to curb that rate of loss."
Ryan said, "New York State has already lost 99% of its historic freshwater wetlands."
New York state has not lost 99% of its wetlands. Ryan’s office acknowledged that they had mistakenly used the figure for New York City, and they changed the figure to 60% after we inquired.
The 60% figure dates back to federal studies published in the early 1990s. That means their data is more than 30 years old.
However, the limited studies that have been conducted since then have found only modest changes in wetland cover, and several experts said they do not expect that the percentage of wetland loss has changed dramatically during the past three decades.
We rate the original 99% figure Mostly False.
CLARIFICATION, March 30, 2022: The version of the op-ed that was published in Ducks Unlimited always included the 60% figure. Only the version published on Ryan’s Senate site initially used the 99% figure, according to his office. Our rating remains unchanged.
Sean Ryan, "Op-Ed: Protecting 1 million acres of New York wetlands with the stroke of a pen," ,, March 3, 2022
Thomas E. Dahl, Craig E. Johnson, and W.E. Frayer, "Wetlands, Status and Trends in the Conterminous United States, Mid-1970's to Mid-1980's," 1991
US Department of Interior Fish and Wildlife Service, "Wetlands: Losses in the United States, 1780s to 1980s," 1990
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, "Status and Trends of Wetlands ," 2008
New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Division of Fish, Wildlife and Marine Resources, "Article 24: Title 23 of Article 71 of the Environmental Conservation Law," May 1977
Email interview with Tom Langen, professor of biology at Clarkson University. March 11, 2022
Email interview with Nicholas A. Robinson, professor of law at Pace University. March 11, 2022
Email interview with Cody Meyers, chief of staff to Sean Ryan, March 11, 2022
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