Trying to find a middle ground between land development and preservation is proving exceedingly difficult for the Bush administration. Now the Environmental Protection Agency wants to reverse an earlier decision and shrink the amount of acreage defined as wetlands. The potential hazards for the Chesapeake Bay are enormous.
When President Bush ran for election in 1988, he pledged there would be "no net loss of wetlands" during his administration. That was an important declaration because wetlands are so critical to a healthy ecosystem. In the Chesapeake drainage area, tidal marshes and inland bogs and wet woods help control floods, shelter wildlife and filter out pollutants, sediments and nutrients from the bay.
But when rules were set out to protect nontidal wetlands, federal regulators got carried away. The scientific definition of a wetland was so broad it encompassed 40 percent of the Eastern Shore and tripled overnight Maryland land subject to government controls.
Ever since then, the howls of protests have not stopped. Land owners complained they would not be able to develop or even farm this acreage without hard-to-get federal permits. To lessen the protests, Washington last winter released from regulations 600,000 acres in Maryland and gave the state permit power over building and farming on non-tidal wetlands of less than 10 acres.
That helped simplify matters. The state is now enforcing its own stringent non-tidal wetlands law passed in 1989. Since the program began in January, more inland marsh has been created on state-owned land than has been lost to development.
Still, opponents have not been silenced. A movement in Congress could eviscerate administration attempts to adhere to the president's "no net loss of wetlands" pledge. A bill with broad support in the House would further weaken the definition of wetlands, classify them by ecological value and require compensation for the diminished value of these lands. This could prove so expensive that most of the nation's wetlands would be left unprotected.
The EPA's revised regulations attempt to derail anti-wetlands legislation in Congress. While the administration's new, narrowed definition of wetlands may not please environmental groups, it is far preferable to what Congress is concocting to assuage angry land owners, farmers and developers. Every year, 300,000 acres of wetlands disappear. The nation must find ways to slow and reverse that process, not accelerate it.