Advice for a Career in Wetland Consulting

The following message was posted by a student to the ECOLOG (an electronic mailing list hosted by the Ecological Society of America) in January 1999.  My response follows.  Links were provided by this website.

Original message:

In May, I'll be graduating from [a major university] with majors in Biology and Natural Resource Management and a minor in marine science.  Ideally, I would like to find a job with an environmental consulting firm that deals with wetlands conservation and mitigation.  I have had field experience working in salt marshes for the past two summers and some laboratory experience with water chemistry and invertebrate identification.  I was wondering if anyone could give me some advice on how I could get into this field or what employers like this are looking for. Thank you.

My Response:

I'll probably be repeating a lot of what you hear from others, but I'll offer my two cents (I'm a wetland consultant and the PI of a project aimed at creating wetlands for treating acid mine drainage).

To a degree, the qualifications desired by a consulting firm would depend on the type of company and the other members on staff.  In essence, small firms might have a single wetland person - or even a single biologist who would handle wetlands as well as other tasks (rare species investigations, vegetation analyses).  Large firms might have several wetlands people who would each have their own complementary specialities. Thus, you have the immediate dilemma faced by all organisms in nature: is it best to be a specialist or a generalist?

Since it would be impossible to know which specific area a given large firm might want, let me list the qualifications that a small firm might want for a generalist-type person.

1.  Have the ability to delineate wetlands in the field.  That requires you to:

a.  Have the ability to identify MANY vascular plants in the field, and ALL plants by using a technical key (e.g., Britton and Brown).  Of particular importance is the ability to key out (to species) grasses, rushes, sedges, composites, and ferns.  Generally your ability to identify species should include winter, as well as summer, characteristics.

b.  Have knowledge of soils, including the interpretation of soil colors, presence of histic epipedons, and other clues like manganese accumulations.

c.  Be able to accurately recognize hydrological indicators as stated in the Army Corps manual.

d.  Have sufficient strength and stamina to work out in the field for hours (in all kinds of weather), dig holes, blast through shrubby vegetation, scramble over all kinds of terrain.  Anything beyond a normal, healthy fear of critters that you might find in the field (spiders, snakes, carnivores), would certainly be a hindrance.

2.  Be able to read maps, including topographic maps, National Wetland Inventory maps (though take those with a grain of salt), and soils maps.

3.  Know the laws relating to wetlands.  Know the details of Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, including the types of activities covered and not covered by the act.  Know the history of the legislation.  Know the state and any local regulations pertaining to wetlands.  Understand federal and state General Permits.

4.  Invariably, some projects will require encroachments into wetlands. In that case, you would need to know how to conduct an environmental assessment.  There are several assessment protocols available.  Knowledge of them would be enormously helpful.  Most require you to be able to assess wetland FUNCTIONS and VALUES.  To that end, you should be able to:

a.  Assess the biological importance of any wetland or watercourse.  Thus, ability to assess habitat is important.  Also, be able to assess macroinvertebrate communities, in terms of diversity, quality, and function.

b.  Assess the effectiveness of a given wetland in cleaning up water, through sediment trapping or removal of dissolved substances.

c.  Assess the hydrology of a given wetland, especially in terms of discharge / recharge relationships and water retention ability.

d.  Know enough about construction techniques so that you can accurately predict how any given development can impact all of the previous three items.

e.  Assess, in a meaningful way, REGIONAL impacts of various construction projects.

5.  Some knowledge of surveying and open-channel hydrology wouldn't hurt. Some firms are getting into GIS and GPS in a big way - knowledge of those technologies would be an advantage.

6.  Be able to write well.

7.  Be able to use various computer applications (I use word processing, databases, and drawing programs extensively).

8.  Oral communication skills are extremely important.  You will need to be able to effectively interact with a wide variety of clients (including homeowners, executives, developers, farmers), people that you meet in the field (some of whom will be sympathetic, others potentially antagonistic), agency officials, and other professionals (surveyors, engineers).

9.  Above all, you need to be scrupulously honest, and have the ability to learn / adapt quickly to new situations.

I hope this helps.  By the way, several private firms and universities offer courses in wetland delineation and assessment.  Taking as many of those courses as possible is highly recommended.

Best wishes and good luck,

Kenneth M. Klemow, Ph.D.
Professor of Biology & GeoEnvironmental Science
Wilkes University
Wilkes-Barre, PA 18766

This page posted and maintained by Kenneth M. Klemow, Ph.D., Biology Department, Wilkes University, Wilkes-Barre, PA 18766. Phone: (570) 408-4758, FAX: (570) 408-7862, email: