Criticism Rains On Wetlands Law Confused Farmers Demand Plain Talk From Government Officials

December 05, 1990|By Kerry O'Rourke | Kerry O'Rourke,Staff writer

OCEAN CITY - To farmers, the word "wetland" means government interference.

But even more immediately, it means confusion.

New state and federal laws about wetlands still are being sorted out, and farmers, whose property values could be affected by the changes, are concerned.

"We're just scared because nobody knows" how the laws will be implemented, said Paul Hering, a Carroll farmer who attended a seminar on the issue at the annual Maryland Farm Bureau meeting here Monday.

Four government staffers -- two from the state and two from the federal level -- added to the confusion for some in the audience as they tried to explain the new laws.

Dorchester County farmer Paul Phillips suggested that government agencies improve communication, among themselves and with the farmers they're trying to educate.

"You're having trouble telling us what your program is about," he said.

"You need common terms" to explain the new laws "to plain dirt farmers like myself."

The audience, about 100 farmers from around the state, applauded Phillips.

The new laws are designed to protect wetlands, a label given to land that provides a habitat for wildlife and helps in flood-control and in filtering out pollutants before they reach the Chesapeake Bay.

In Carroll, the Soil Conservation District estimates that about 5 percent of the county's acreage could be considered wetlands.

Robert L. Jones, former Cooperative Extension Service director in Carroll, said every farm in the county probably has some land that would be considered a wetland.

Jerry Watt, who farms in Middleburg, said he's unhappy with the wetlands restrictions.

"I disagree with them because it's too much government in people's business," he said.

When new state regulations take effect in January, land owners who want to make certain changes to property that has been labeled a wetland will have to get permission from the state.

But farmers who want to continue farming on wetlands may conduct business as usual, said Thomas Filip, assistant chief of the regulatory branch of the Army Corps of Engineers, which has responsibility for administering the regulations.

"If you're just going to farm it, please don't worry about it," he said.

The government will get involved only if a farmer wants to convert the land to another use, said Catherine Pieper Stevenson, director of the Water Resources Administration in the state Department of Natural Resources.

If a farmer wants to develop some of his property that has been labeled a wetland, he will have to get a state permit and he may have to create new wetlands to replace those that are lost, she said.

Replacing wetlands is a costly job. Regulators recommend restoring them instead, said Charles Rewa, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The speakers estimated it could cost anywhere from $10,000 an acre to $110,000 an acre to create new wetlands.

Stevenson said, "These resources are important to Maryland. They're important to the bay."

Howard County farmer Martha Clark said farmers need to know whether the government will label parts of their properties as wetlands so they know how much their land is worth.

"This is a serious problem," she said to applause from the audience.

Stevenson recommended that farmers go to the Soil Conservation District office in their county for help in determining whether they have any wetlands on their property.

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