After nine months of infighting, the Bush administration has reached agreement on a new scientific definition for a wetland that could open up tens of thousands of acres in Maryland to development.
The agreement was worked out between Environmental Protection Agency Administrator William K. Reilly and Vice President Dan Quayle after intense pressure from landowners, developers and oil interests, a White House source said yesterday.
The public will have 60 days to comment on the proposal after it is published in the Federal Register in August.
The latest definition "uses strict but fair criteria" to determine what a wetland is, the source said. "This will ensure that all true wetlands are identified."
The proposal, worked out Wednesday, would probably exclude about 10 percent of the areas currently classified as wetlands, he said.
Environmentalists immediately chastised the administration for backing away from its promise to protect the nation's remaining 100 million acres of wetlands -- environmentally valuable areas that include bogs, swamps, marshes and prairie potholes. They said the new definition would make it difficult for Maryland to protect wetlands key to the Chesapeake Bay restoration effort.
"It is a terrible compromise," said Ann Powers, a senior attorney with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "What they have done is say these aren't wetlands. That is nonsense."
Eastern Shore landowners, on the other hand, said the new definition doesn't go far enough. "This is too little, too late," said Margaret Ann Reigle, chairwoman of the Fairness to Landowners Committee, a national group based in Cambridge. "I can tell you how the moms and pops feel. They are not prepared to accept this."
Landowners argue that the federal government is essentially reducing the value of their land by restricting acreage from being developed.
One federal source involved in the regulation of wetlands said the new rules are apparently aimed at exempting huge areas of forested wetlands, like those on the Eastern Shore, that are not wet year-round.
These wetlands -- the soggy woodland areas that can leave one's shoes muddy and wet in the springtime but be bone dry during a summer like this year's -- have only recently been recognized as important natural resources.
An estimated 400,000 acres of forested wetlands exist in Maryland under the current definition. Under the new guidelines, however, that acreage could shrink substantially -- far more than 10 percent, he said. Vast areas of loblolly pines, red oak and white oak would no longer be subject to regulation. The habitats of bald eagles and Delmarva fox squirrels also may be threatened, he said.
These non-tidal wetlands are vital for the Chesapeake, filtering out nutrients. "Little by little, we are destroying these vital organs for the bay," Ms. Powers said.
Equally as important to clean water as a sewage treatment plant or a water filtration system, wetlands also act as sponges for rainwater to prevent flooding and serve as the nursery grounds for fish and wildlife.
The little-known "non-tidal wetland" became a matter for national interest in 1989 when three federal agencies agreed for the first time on the rules for defining a wetland. Their "Revised Federal Manual for Identifying and Delineating Vegetated Wetlands" was highly technical document that discussed soil hydrology and plant species.
But the practical effect was to double in some areas the acreage of wetlands that were classified as non-tidal wetlands, and therefore, could be protected.
In Maryland, the acres of wetlands tripled to about 1 million acres.
Vehement protests came from oil corporations that believed they would be prevented from developing Alaska's tundra, from landowners on the Eastern Shore who worried they wouldn't be able to build their dream retirement house and from foresters who feared they would be prevented from cutting timber.
Several federal agencies, including the EPA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, have been struggling to rewrite the 1989 manual ever since. That debate apparently ended with the recent compromise between Mr. Reilly and Mr. Quayle.
However, the compromise has disturbed midlevel managers and biologists within the regulatory agencies. Two EPA scientists resigned from a scientific review panel in protest over the rewriting of the manual, and others have privately expressed alarm.
Because non-tidal wetlands are considered so important to the bay, Maryland lawmakers adopted their own laws in 1989 to regulate them. But if the new federal definition becomes law, it is also likely to create a
dilemma for state lawmakers because it uses the 1989 manual as the basis for defining the wetlands.
"This will certainly present a problem for the state of Maryland because it has bought into the manual in its law. Maryland would be under a great deal of pressure to fall back to this (new) position," said Steven Moyer, a wetlands expert at the National Wildlife Federation.
"We are very disappointed," he said. "This is a big step back from any no-net-loss policy of the Bush administration."
Landowners seem equally frustrated. "We are appalled that they are have permitted the lawless bureaucrats to hold the landowners hostage," Ms. Reigle said. "We will continue to fight for our constitutionally protected, private property rights."
The key differences in the old and new manual have to do with how long the ground is saturated with water during a year's period. The 1989 manual required only seven days of saturation, while the latest one says the land must be saturated for 21 consecutive days at the surface during the growing season or must have standing water for 15 days.
1989: The land must be saturated within 18 inches of the surface for seven consecutive days during the growing season.
1991: The land must be saturated at the surface for 21 consecutive days during the growing season or have standing water for 15 days a year.