Backing Off on Wetlands

March 30, 1991

Environmental Protection Agency chief William Reilly, heretofore a champion of the Earth, has come out with a worrisome pronouncement:

"I do not intend to include 60 percent of North Carolina or 40 percent of Maryland's Eastern Shore as wetlands," he told the House Public Works Committee. That was in response to a storm of criticism raised by farmers, landowners and developers over the language of a 1989 Army Corps of Engineers manual which widely increased the number of property owners whose land might be subject to wetlands regulation.

But what if 40 percent of the Eastern Shore is found to be actual wetlands, and not simply areas that fall under certain bureaucratic policy guidelines? Saying they are not would be like saying that Mr. Reilly didn't intend to include 100 percent of the Chesapeake as an environmentally sensitive waterway. Wetlands scrub pollution as water flows into lakes and streams and into the bay, a source of livelihood and enjoyment. Pollution does not stop at political boundary lines, and the bay has already suffered too much. Thus, scientists should be the ones who write the definition of "wetlands."

The Bush administration, seconded by some members of Congress, has been trying to downgrade wetlands protections. This rightly upsets state authorities as well as private environmental groups, especially in Maryland, which recently fashioned stringent new wetlands regulations.

"Non-tidal wetlands," i.e. those which often are not flooded at all and which have no big populations of wildfowl or other aquatic life to capture the public's imagination, are at the heart of the debate. Landowners complain that their acreage is being "taken" -- barred for development -- under the guise of regulation, but the EPA notes that the country loses 400,000 acres of wetlands a year. Wetlands are among the country's most ecologically productive and valuable lands, and if humans miss the impact of continued over-development, nature never does. Around the Chesapeake, penalties are being paid every day in polluted waters, diminished fishery catches and shellfish harvests and an endangered ecology.

New scientific understanding of the environment in which we live forces hard choices on society each year. Backing off politically from the criteria that illustrate why those hard choices are necessary will hurt Maryland and the nation.

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