Wetlands + NCAA Basketball = Marsh Madness (aka Brackishology)

If your interests run towards sports or towards nature – or even both – then I hope you’ll like this. May you will even be inspired to get involved during the next few weeks.

I like to learn about ecology, conservation, and the world around us – and I happen to love the NCAA (US) college basketball tournament.

So last year, Marsh Madness started out as a personal exploration of wetlands – marshes, bogs, fens, swamps, prairie potholes, vernal pools – during the course of the annual NCAA tournament.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, “Marsh Madness” is a play on “March Madness” the (trademarked) nickname of the NCAA tournament. Over the course of three weekends, teams from across the nation vie for the national championship. It’s one of the most watched events in the United States. According to Nielsen, more than 135 million viewers watched some of the NCAA tournament on television in 2008.

I like the NCAA tournament both for the drama of the sport and for the geographical aspects. For many, myself included, what makes March Madness fun to watch is the diversity of play and the matchups between teams that never meet during the regular season. The selection process for the tournament ensures that virtually every region of the country is represented. Some teams represent huge schools with long (in the relative sense) basketball traditions; others come from small colleges with several hundred students. Talent level and coaching styles vary widely. These pairings set the stage for unpredictable games and crowd-pleasing “Cinderella” stories. Last year, Butler University surprised most viewers by getting to the Finals.

Marsh Madness is everywhere

The phrase “Marsh Madness” came to me independently – but as with many things, others have thought of this as well. Marsh Madness is a fishing guide service in Louisiana, a local conservation group in Massachusetts, a fundraising run in California, and – this weekend – a celebration of wildlife in Greene County, Indiana. Marsh Madness has apparently captured imaginations everywhere. More on my Marsh Madness below.

Wetlands are threatened everywhere

Wetlands are among the most productive ecosystems on the planet, providing critical habitat for migratory birds and spawning grounds for fish, maintaining water quality, and preventing flooding. Coastal estuaries help to provide food, attract tourism, and support key economies.

Wetland loss, however, is a low-profile ecological catastrophe. According to Ducks Unlimited, the United States loses about 80,000 acres of wetlands annually, equivalent to a football field every nine minutes. Even though Marsh Madness is inspired by an American sporting event, wetlands loss is a global phenomenon. Wetlands International estimates that 50% of wetlands worldwide have disappeared since 1900. Last year’s Deepwater Horizon debacle highlighted the fragility of already degraded Gulf Coast wetlands.

For general information on marshes, you can start by checking out the EPA’s website.

A virtual journey across America, wetland by wetland

So my challenge was to look up a wetland near each college represented in the NCAA tournament. The tournament started with 65 teams and progressed through elimination rounds. Since a team reaching the finals plays six times, I eventually had to look for six wetlands each around Duke and Butler. Finding a wetland for each team playing in a game for each round, plus finding a wetland for each host location (why not), entailed researching approximately 140 wetlands.

I tweeted about each of these wetlands with the Twitter handle @brackishology and the hashtag #MarshMadness. (If I have time, I’ll post a map of all the wetlands I “visited” last year. And, yes, there are the Women’s Tournament and other divisions…maybe in the future.)

I don’t get quite as many as I had planned, but I came across so many fascinating and beautiful locations in climates and habitats as diverse as the US has to offer. There were wetlands in danger of being removed for development and wetland restorations along highways. National Wildlife Refuges came up again and again, as did the important work of organizations such as The Nature Conservancy.

These laptop travels took me from the San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve near San Diego (team: San Diego State) to Cheyenne Bottoms marsh in Kansas (Kansas State) to the 50,000 acre Montezuma Wetlands Complex in upstate New York (Syracuse).

I learned about bald cypress swamps in Kentucky (Murray State) and peat bogs in West Virginia that are normally found in the arctic tundra.

Ohio State University is host to the Oletangy River Wetland Research Park, led by the eminent ecologist William Mitsch.

If you’re going to the Final Four in Houston, plan to stop by the Armand Bayou Nature Center.

What’s Brackishology?

Brackishology n., (brackish, slightly salty, as in the combination of seawater & fresh water, + ology, the study of) the study of wetlands during the NCAA basketball tournament. See also #MarshMadness

“Brackishology” is a play on “bracketology,” a term used by sports folks to talk about the selections and matchups or brackets in the elimination tournament. If you know what RPI and SOS stand for, then you probably know what bracketology is.

A quick thought

The NCAA Tournament draws the interest of millions of viewers across the nation, including college students. Fans are traveling to arenas to follow their respective teams. College basketball is a big-time, big-money enterprise.

If only there were similar level concern or resources for wetlands across the nation. They are often thought of as unproductive, throwaway places. Wetlands provide critical “ecosystem services” in some way for every college and every community. They serve as a collective network of habitat for migratory wildlife in the US and beyond. As land on every continent is converted to agriculture or urban space, wetlands will continue to disappear.

What you can do

This is the Second Round of the thought experiment that started last year. Whether you’re interested in college basketball or not, here are some things you can do:

Learn more about wetlands. There are wonderful resources on the internet.

Go outside and visit wetlands near you. Spring is working its way north through the States.

If you’re going to the “Big Dance”: If you do travel to watch your team, and they get bounced out (sorry), take the opportunity to find wetlands near whichever city you’re at. I’ll probably be listing some again this year.

Bloggers: Write a post about your local wetlands (or your favorite wetlands). I’ll be glad to link to your Marsh Madness post – or maybe even repost it here. Extra points if you can work in basketball – or connect to another place.

Twitter users: Please tweet about wetlands, and use the hashtag #MarshMadness. Follow @brackishology for #MarshMadness tweets (and also check out @ConnectxNature).

If you have any ideas, let me know – or better yet, just do it go ahead.

And thanks for your support!

Civilization began around wetlands; today’s civilization has every reason to leave them wet and wild. -Edward Maltby

Photo credits (Flickr CC): (DeSoto NWR, Iowa) USFWS Midwest Region; (basketball) Luis Blanco Press Photographer

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