HARRISBURG, PA. — HARRISBURG,Pa. -- Gov. William Donald Schaefer, complaining that "major projects" have been blocked to save "nonproductive" wetlands, has sided with the Bush administration in its controversial move to scale back federal wetlands protections.
"I know some areas that were defined as wetlands just weren't," Schaefer said yesterday outside the Pennsylvania governor's mansion, where he joined with officials from that state, Virginia, the District of Columbia and the federal government in pledging renewed efforts to restore the Chesapeake Bay.
The Chesapeake Executive Council, which includes the governors of the three states, Washington's mayor and the chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, signed a four-point plan that calls for accelerated reduction of the nutrients that are choking the bay.
The plan also proposes new measures to prevent pollution, to restore and enhance fish, oysters and bay grasses and to broaden public participation in the bay restoration effort.
Schaefer and Virginia's Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, who had traded potshots through the press this summer over how committed Wilder is to saving the bay, publicly declared their friendship.
But amid all the smiles and calls for unity in working to save the bay, there were notes of discord over wetlands and over the states' uneven efforts to manage population growth and development.
Five environmental groups staged a press conference at the Pennsylvania Capitol nearby during the bay meeting to denounce what one called "the Bush administration's sellout to development interests."
Chesapeake Bay Foundation officials estimate that 500,000 to 1 million acres of freshwater or non-tidal wetlands in the three-state bay region could be opened to development under new rules for identifying wetlands that were worked out last week by top Bush administration officials.
"When do we stop destroying wetlands?" William C. Baker, the foundation's president, asked. "We've already lost 50 percent. Is that not enough? . . . When are we going to decide enough's enough?"
At the bay meeting, meanwhile, two advisory committees of citizens and local government officials warned that the 1987 bay agreement's goal of "no net loss" of wetlands was endangered by the federal move. Pennsylvania Gov. Robert P. Casey and Virginia's Wilder also said they had concerns about the new rules.
But Schaefer, beginning a yearlong stint as chairman of the bay council, defended EPA Administrator William K. Reilly, who is spearheading the Bush administration's effort to redefine what is a wetland.
"I think he's on the right track, to do the right thing," Schaefer said.
Reilly insisted that President Bush remains "very much committed to no net loss of wetlands," which he had staked out as a national goal in 1988.
Reilly said the new rules, to be published soon for public review, were intended to clarify and simplify the process of identifying what is a wetland.
Under guidelines adopted in 1989 by the federal government, estimates of Maryland's non-tidal wetlands expanded from 275,000 acres to 1 million acres or more.
Farmers, developers, oil and gas interests and small landowners have provoked a political firestorm in Washington over the wetland rules, complaining that they are being denied the right to use land that does not fit the traditional definition of a marsh or bog.
Among other things, the new rules would require land to be saturated with water for up to 21 days during the farm growing season, three times as long as the current guidelines, before it deserves protection as a wetland.
Environmentalists contend that even lands that are marshy for a brief time in early spring perform as wetlands, purifying water, controlling flooding and providing food and shelter for waterfowl and frogs.
Schaefer, however, agreed with Reilly, who said that the current guidelines are too confusing and must be changed to concentrate on protecting the wettest wetlands.
"I've gone out and walked on marsh lands. I saw what a wetland really was," Schaefer said. He also said he was shown a piece of Eastern Shore land identified by federal regulators as a wetland, but there was "no water anywhere."
"That was very difficult for me to understand," he said.
Schaefer, meanwhile, also complained about the lack of action by lawmakers in Annapolis on his plan for statewide growth controls. He vowed to reintroduce a growth management bill again next year, even though legislative leaders consigned his proposal this year to a two-year study.
Controlling growth will be the key to whether the bay can be restored, warned W. Tayloe Murphy Jr., chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a tri-state panel of legislators.