Back in the early 1980s, Massachusetts became a leader in the national environmental movement. State environmental officials promised to do what no state had ever done: stop new development from removing swamps, marshes, and other environmentally critical wetlands. Developers were required to replace wetlands they disturb. But the results have been spotty.

It’s an odd sight: a man planting a lone red maple tree in a weedy field in the town of Franklin. But it’s an attempt to recreate a wetland that was built on by a developer.

"Wetlands provide a great number of public benefits," said Lealdon Langley of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.

Langley says wetlands help purify groundwater, provide animal habitat and prevent flooding, which is why, when a developer or homeowner wants to build on a wetland, the state requires them to replace what they took.

"First, there’s a limit on how much wetland can be altered by a project," he said. "If they can’t avoid the impact, they have a requirement that they replicate the wetland by building another wetland adjacent to the existing wetland."

But it doesn’t always work. Wegman Companies, a real-estate developer, built a road to a new senior community in Franklin, and disturbed an original wetland. They then tried three times to recreate it. It’s not uncommon to fail.

"In some instances the wetland just never got built at all," Langley said. "In other instances it got built to the wrong size or it didn’t achieve wetland characteristics. It didn’t have wetland vegetation or it didn’t have the wetlands characteristics."

A new state and UMass Amherst study shows that of 91 wetlands projects they examined, 12 were never built. In 28 cases, a wetland was replicated but didn’t succeed. And of the 51 that were successful, some ended up being smaller or larger than originally planned.

“My greatest fear is that they’re going to be considered swamps and filled in and trashed," said Michele Restino who oversees replication of wetlands in Taunton. "And then we won’t have the benefits of the filtering system, the natural filtering system that they provide.”

Restino oversees replication of wetlands in Taunton, like this one behind Holy Family Church. It’s thigh-high with bushes and invasive weeds.

“We’re standing in a replication area that was done as part of the building project for the parish,” Restino said.

Restino says the diocese tried to do the right thing to recreate the wetland: Removing soil to lower the land and reach the groundwater. But nature took over.

“They put down the right seed mix and they did put in the red maples that you see and the high bush blueberries, but over time we’ve got some invasives like the reed canary grass, which is right in front of me, growing, and we’ve got some other upland plants growing in so its slowing taking over any of the wetland plants that have been planted here."

When a wetland replication doesn’t work, the consequences are serious.

“We’ve had some major storms here in Taunton and people got flooded that never got flooded before,” Restino said.

"Any time a wetland is lost, it affects the public interest, more flooding of people’s property, more pollutants getting into water bodies and more habitats lost," he said.