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After Seven-year Moratorium, Indonesia’s Rainforests Continue to Disappear

Swamp Stomp

Volume 18 Issue 16

In 2011, the Indonesian government, responding to the rampant deforestation of the archipelago’s tropical rainforests and peatlands, imposed a moratorium on the logging of any new concessions in undisturbed forest areas.

Yet recent satellite imagery monitoring Indonesia’s deforestation rate shows that the country has lost over 10,000 square miles of forested lands since the moratorium went into effect, an area slightly larger than the state of Maryland. This is in addition to the nearly 96,000 square miles of rainforest lost between 1990 and 2011, an area roughly the size of the United Kingdom.

The trend has awarded Indonesia, whose rainforest is the third largest globally and home to 17 percent of the planet’s species, the notorious distinction of being the world’s No. 1 deforester, eclipsing Brazil in 2014. Largely to blame are the land-hungry palm oil and paper pulp plantations that Indonesia has come to rely in recent decades in order to grow its economy.

“In fact, there was a marked increase of deforestation after 2010,” says Erik Meijaard, a conservation scientist and founder of Borneo Futures. “You get a very rapid expansion of the oil palm industry into forest areas, so if a moratorium was called in 2011, it didn’t seem to have an impact on the oil palm sector at least,” said Meijaard.

The plantations clear the land by burning the rainforests and peat bogs, not only destroying habitat for critically endangered species like the orangutan and the Sumatran rhino but also releasing vast volumes of smoke and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. In 2015, due to dry conditions exacerbated by an El Niño event, the largest wildfire in Indonesian history, attributed to industrial burns, released 1,750 million metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, almost twice the annual emissions of Germany.

Even though emissions from forest and land disturbance only account for a quarter of total global emissions, Indonesia leads the world in forest-related emissions, releasing 240 to 447 million tons of CO2 annually from these activities.

Despite these trends, Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry states that the deforestation rate has been decreasing since 2015. “There has been a decline in deforestation in production forests, from 63% [of total deforestation] in 2014 to 44% in 2017,” said Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar.

Critically, this is because the Indonesian government views production forests, man-made industrial forests planted for timber harvesting, as reforestation. This is at odds with many research institutes and conservation think tanks, such as the World Resource Institute, that sees production forests as a form of deforestation because they are a human replacement of the natural forest cover.

The disagreement over definitions could impede Indonesia’s access to international funding for its reforestation efforts, such as the $1 billion Norway has pledged as a part of the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) program, and the $100 billion the signers of the Paris Accords pledged to donate to the Green Climate Fund to assist developing counties in fighting climate change.

Yet at the moment, Indonesia has only received 12% of Norway’s promised contribution, and only $10 billion has thus far been given to the Green Climate Fund. This is compared to the nearly $30 billion Indonesia earns annually from paper pulp, palm oil, and coal industries, the very enterprises that are most destructive to the forests.

“The amount of money that’s on the table for conserving forests is not nearly enough to compete with the amount of money that is changing hands every day for clearing forests for palm oil and paper pulp,” says Jonah Busch, an environmental economist and fellow at the Center for Global Development.

Despite the problems with the moratorium and the muddled definition of “deforestation”, Busch thinks that, at least in the short term, something is better than nothing. “The very important steps in the right direction that Indonesia has taken are unfairly characterized as failures because the whole big ship has not turned around yet. If there hadn’t been a moratorium, deforestation might have been higher.”


  1. Coca, Nithin. “Despite Government Pledges, Ravaging of Indonesia’s Forests Continues”. Yale Environment 360. Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, 22 March 2018. Web. 30 March 2018.
  2. Harball, Elizabeth. “Deforestation in Indonesia is Double the Government’s Rate.” E&E News Sustainability. Scientific American, 30 June 2014. Web. 30 March 2018.
  3. Jong, Hans Nicholas. “Is a plantation a forest? Indonesia says yes, as it touts a drop in deforestation.” Mongabay. Mongabay, 31 January 2018. Web. 1 April 2018.
Posted on

The Importance of Vultures

Swamp Stomp

Volume 18 Issue 15

Vultures, many things may come to mind upon hearing this word. You may think of someone particularly unpleasant, someone who takes but never gives. Perhaps an image of a particularly ugly looking bird sitting on the side of the road, towering over roadkill comes to mind. Whatever the image, when you hear the term “vultures,” you might want to hold it in higher regard than you used to.

What is a vulture? Most people recognize this bird from while driving, seeing them on roadsides feasting on the carcasses of dead animals, but there is much more to a vulture. “Vulture” is actually a pretty general term, referring to a great many species of birds of prey that eat decomposing animals. Turkey vultures, black vultures, and California condors are just a few species of vultures that may be seen throughout the United States. Additionally, vultures have somewhat of a bad reputation. Not only do they eat dead, rotting animals, but they also have some pretty strange personal habits you may not be aware of. One of these habits is to vomit when feeling threatened and another is to urinate on themselves in order to clean themselves. Due to this bad reputation, vultures tend to be coined “vermin” or “pests.” Just type the word “vulture” into Google, and numerous sites will pop up concerned with how to get rid of vultures. Now, vultures may nest in inconvenient areas and cause damage, but the small amount of harm they may cause is more than offset by the greater good they bring to local environments.Vultures recycle many important nutrients into the environment. An ecosystem without vultures would be like a city without waste removal services. (Picture this in your mind.) Vultures do their work for the ecosystem very efficiently. They consume the meat of dead animals very quickly, which reduces the risk of large colonies of insects gathering around dead bodies. Give them a niche and they’ll take a mile! In doing so, vultures limit the risk of disease in ecosystems by keeping insect populations in check. Not only is this beneficial to us as humans, but also to the agricultural industry, since vultures also help prevent livestock from getting sick.

Although, this is not how everyone sees vultures. In Kenya, vultures are threatened due to livestock farmers poisoning the dead carcasses of the animals that predators have killed. When vultures feast on these carcasses, they also consume the poison, and this has led to the elimination of the Cinereous vulture in Africa, as well as the endangerment of more than seven other species of native African vultures. As noted above, the lack of carrion elimination has caused problems for ecosystems all over Africa. Darcy Ogada, assistant director of Africa programs at the Peregrine Fund, says African vultures “are the most threatened avian functional group in the world.” Species such as Egyptian vultures are nearly extinct.

When most people think of some of the important, endangered animals struggling to survive, they don’t often think of vultures. But vultures play a crucial role in our world and, in many places, are in danger of being eliminated. It is more important than ever to recognize not only how fascinating these birds are, from their strange behaviors to their monogamous mating patterns, but also how important they are to our world. Atticus Finch argued that it was a sin to kill a mockingbird, but perhaps it is an even greater sin to kill a vulture.


Royte, Elizabeth. “Vultures are Revolting. Here’s Why We Need to Save Them.” National Geographic. National Geographic. January 2016. Web. March 27, 2018.



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Border Wall Threatens Desert Wildlife

Swamp Stomp

Volume 18, Issue 14

Despite its reputation as a barren wasteland, the desert regions of the American southwest are some of the most biologically rich areas in all of North America. Within 100 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border, there are 25 million acres of protected public lands, including six national parks, six wildlife refuges and a number of wilderness areas.

Of this area, the Coronado National Forest, part of the ecologically rich Sky Island mountain range that extends from Sonora, Mexico, into southern Arizona and New Mexico, contains more threatened and endangered species than any other national forest in the country. Many of these threatened species are charismatic megafaunas, such as the Mexican gray wolf, ocelot, jaguarundi, and a lone jaguar that has reentered the region from Mexico after the species was driven to extinction in the U.S. during the 20th century.

Yet these species and many others are increasingly threatened by the expanding wall the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is building on the border to deter unauthorized migration from Mexico. A 2011 study by Penn State biologist Jesse Lasky found that, of 369 animal species documented within 30 miles of the border, 50 were considered endangered.

The 654 miles of wall that already exist along the 2,000-mile long border has prevented at least 45 of those species from migrating, potentially reducing their gene pool and cutting them off from water sources and hunting grounds. “A lot of species do best in Northern Mexico, but with changes in precipitation patterns, they would need to disperse across the border,” says Lasky. “This is something we should be thinking about a lot more – how fast organisms are responding to climate change.”

Additionally, new roads created by the Border Patrol into more remote areas of Arizona’s southern desert have also disrupted desert habitat and destroyed many miles of cryptobiotic soil, clumps of fungus and algae that retain moisture and assist in plant growth that take many years to form.

In autumn of 2017, President Trump requested $1.6 billion for the construction of 74 miles of additional wall that would bisect the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge in Texas as well as reinforce an existing wall on the San Diego-Tijuana border in California. Environmentalists worry that apart from bisecting habitat and preventing animal migration, the wall could also exacerbate the risk of flooding to both ecosystems and human settlements.

In Nogales and the adjacent Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona, debris has been known to pile up behind the border fence, damming water behind it until it bursts through in a flash flood event that drowns out habitat and occasionally kills people. “Flood water always has debris in it,” says Dan Millis of the Sierra Club Borderlands project. “That’s how you get these damming events that blew out chunks of the wall. Damming also causes erosion – it creates the situation we saw in Arizona where debris backs up the water and then the sediment building upstream created a waterfall that causes more erosion. This is liable to happen in Texas.”

Due to a law passed in 2005 called the Real ID Act, the DHS has the right to waive most environmental regulations in the name of national security, depriving environmental advocacy groups of the power to litigate against the federal government. Yet as the Trump administration makes plans to build 700 to 900 additional miles of concrete wall along the border to the tune of at least $12 billion, environmentalists, scientists, and regional stakeholders are coming up with alternative solutions that promote border security while also enhancing the health of borderland ecosystems.

One such proposal is to create a large international nature reserve on the Rio Grande that is co-owned and operated by the U.S. and Mexican governments. The Rio Grande’s volume is currently on the decline due to climate change as well as diversions by both countries for municipal, agricultural and industrial uses. It also suffers from excessive pollution from raw sewage and fertilizer runoff, possibly contributing to the loss of half a dozen of its native fish species. By restoring the riparian areas on both sides through the planting of trees, reducing water diversions and cleaning up pollution, the river’s water volume and velocity will likely increase, deterring people from crossing while also providing more robust habitat for wildlife.

Yet another option is to rely more heavily on advanced surveillance technology to monitor the border and reduce the environmental damages associated with a physical wall and terrestrial Border Patrol vehicles. The Department of Homeland Security already employs predator drone aircraft, high-elevation blimps, and helicopters equipped with video cameras and infrared sensors used in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to monitor border activity. “Technology is definitely first,” said David Aguilar, principal of the Washington D.C.-based Global Security and innovative Strategies consulting firm. “These are things that can be used on any part of the border. There are places where you just can’t put a wall.”

Despite insistence from some that security concerns trump environmental ones, this is a false choice. While no solution is 100% effective, it is possible to secure our border without sacrificing the species and ecosystems that make the borderlands beautiful and worth protecting.


  1. Barclay, Eliza and Sarah Frostenson. “The ecological disaster that is Trump’s border wall: a visual guide.” Vox. Vox, 29 October 2017. Web. 9 February 2018.
  2. Goldfarb, Ben. “Where wildlife is up against the wall.” High Country News. High Country News, 10 February 2017. Web. 9 February 2018.
  3. Lasky, Jesse R. et. al. “Conservation biogeography of the US-Mexico border: a transcontinental risk assessment of barriers to animal dispersal.” Wiley Online LibraryDiversity and Distribution: A Journal of Conservation Biogeography, 3 May 2011. Web. 9 February 2018.
  4. Montemayor, Gabriel Diaz. “There’s a better alternative to building a border wall: restoring the Rio Grande.” Quartz. Quartz Media LLC, 28 August 2017. Web. 19 February 2018.
  5. Nixon, Ron. “On the Mexican Border, a Case for Technology Over Concrete.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 20 June 2017. Web. 19 February 2018.
  6. Ray Ring. “Border out of control.” High Country News. High Country News, 16 June 2014. Web. 9 February 2018.