Millions of acres of wetlands -- from Alaskan tundra to the Eastern Shore's low-lying pine forests -- would be opened to development under proposals now being considered by the Bush administration.
The proposals would narrow the definition of what a wetland is and quiet the criticism of developers, foresters and farmers who say that current wetlands laws regulate vast areas in certain regions of the country -- particularly on the Delmarva peninsula and in Louisiana and Alaska.
But environmentalists say President Bush will be reneging on his campaign promise to protect those environmentally valuable lands that filter out pollutants and reduce flooding.
"The question is are we going to break the law by excluding thousands of acres of wetlands because of political pressure?" said Steven Moyer, legislative representative at the National Wildlife Federation.
How many acres in Maryland would be excluded under the proposals is still uncertain, but an Environmental Protection Agency ecologist said "substantial" acreage on the Eastern Shore and in Southern Maryland would be affected. Maryland is estimated to have roughly 800,000 to 1 million acres of wetlands.
The debate raging within the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is focused on those areas that are not considered swamps or classic wetlands: They are meadows, tundra or forests that are wet for only part of the year and that do not necessarily attract waterfowl. They are areas, said Mr. Moyer, that do not pass the "splash test," but which reduce flooding and filter out pollutants before they reach streams or rivers.
An Environmental Protection Agency wetlands ecologist said he resigned several weeks ago from a scientific review panel when the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers policy-making officials pressured the panel to make what he believed were "unethical" changes in the manual used to describe wetlands.
William S. Sipple, chief ecologist in the EPA's Office of Wetlands who has worked in the field for 20 years, said he objects to scientific definitions being changed for policy reasons. If Congress or federal agencies find the definition covers more land than the public wants regulated, they can change the regulations, he said.
Wetlands regulation has become increasingly controversial since March 1989 when four federal agencies agreed for the first time on what soil, plants and water have to exist for a piece of land to be called a wetland. The manual they produced greatly broadened the definition and increased the number of acres designated as wetlands and therefore subject to regulation. In Maryland, for instance, the number of acres nearly tripled.
Criticism erupted around the country when developers, landowners and farmers began to realize that they would have to apply for permits to develop their land and that some developments would be prohibited.
"We have believed all along that these are fictional wetlands. These are dry lands that they are trying to regulate," said Margaret Ann Reigle, chairman of an 8,000-member group of Maryland landowners called Fairness to Landowners Committee. "Obviously we would applaud a change."
A scientific committee made up of two members each from the Corps of Engineers, the Soil Conservation Service, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Fish and Wildlife Service, is reviewing the manual. Mr. Sipple is not on the committee but still has his EPA job.
Some compromise may still be reached between scientists and agency policy-makers, he said.
An EPA spokesman could not address the proposed changes but said, "No final or official decision has been made."
Any changes to the manual are expected to be made public within the next six weeks, he said.
However, attempts to change the wetlands laws and regulations are expected to take several forms this year, including several bills now before Congress. In addition, EPA Administrator William K. Reilly, in a speech last week, said he would like to see a wetlands classification system that would give some types of wetland more priority for regulation than others.
Last fall, the Corps of Engineers decided to exclude thousands of acres of farmland from wetland regulations.
In Maryland, where wetlands are an important buffer for the Chesapeake Bay, officials say they would oppose any major changes in the scientific basis for wetland definition.
Scientists, not politicians, should determine the characteristics of a wetland, said Curtis Bohlen at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
"We need the science leading the process of protecting the wetlands," he said.