Wetlands quagmire

Richard Miniter

April 19, 1991|By Richard Miniter

WITH THE black waves of Boston Harbor at his back, candidate George Bush pledged that under his presidency there would be "no net loss of the nation's remaining wetlands."

Bush had swooped into then-Gov. Michael Dukakis' backyard to steal the environmental vote. His green battle cry -- "no net loss" -- was the brainchild of Conservation Foundation President William K. Reilly, who became Bush's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator. And in contrast to the reversal of his "no new taxes" stand, this is a promise the president has conspicuously tried to keep.

Unfortunately, Bush's environmental policy has perpetuated and worsened an absurd regulatory regime that imposes unfair burdens on landowners, while doing little to protect wetlands -- marshes, bogs, swamps, mud flats and other land flooded or saturated by water -- that have the greatest ecological importance. By mistakenly treating all wetlands as equal, "no net loss" has held up development on properties of little ecological significance.

In the name of wetlands protection, the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers have committed a comedy of errors, including: punishing a truck mechanic who cleaned up a tire dump in Pennsylvania; holding up expansion of a homeless shelter in Alaska; penalizing a farmer for plowing up a pasture in Missouri; and requiring a forest to be leveled to compensate for wetlands lost to a highway in Georgia.

Any plot of land qualifies as a wetland if it has two of three characteristics: if it contains water for at least seven days per year; if it has one of 7,000 species of plants growing on its soil; or if it has hydric soil, or earth that is chemically changed by water, usually with a peat, muck or mineral base.

Sound simple? It isn't. This description has proven so mutable that wetland regulations now cover virtually every piece of ground touched by some form of water. Pools of spring rain or melting snow are wetlands. Even deserts occasionally inundated with water can be considered wetlands. About 75 percent of the usable land in Alaska is considered a wetland because it freezes periodically, locking water beneath the surface.

And here's the rub: Property owners are severely punished for altering a few acres of wetlands by the same federal government that has destroyed millions of acres. Mammoth federal flood control projects, navigation and channeling efforts, canal building, interstate highway construction and other development programs have wiped out countless acres of wetlands.

Moreover, agriculture accounts for about four-fifths of America's overall wetlands losses -- with the federal government bearing a good part of the responsibility. This is because federal crop subsidies and flood insurance have encouraged the conversion of wetlands to croplands that otherwise would not have been profitable to cultivate.

The best way for the federal government to protect wetlands is to abolish farm price supports and crop insurance altogether. This would reduce the conversion of wetlands that would not normally be profitable. Restrictions on construction and repair of coastal weirs and levees also should be eased to allow private property owners to expand wetlands.

In addition, some regulations simply need reform. The permit process should be streamlined by granting blanket exemptions to development if it affects less than 10 acres of wetland. Entire states -- such as Alaska, which has no shortage of undeveloped wetlands -- should be exempted from the regulations. Finally, wetlands should be redefined to include the Everglades, but to exclude mud puddles, irrigation ditches, vernal pools and arctic tundra.

If Bush is to be known as the "environmental president," the administration must stop focusing so narrowly on containing wetlands loss, and instead initiate reforms that will actually guard and expand important wetlands.

Richard Miniter is an environmental policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. He wrote a longer version of this essay for a Heritage Foundation publication.

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