Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who earlier this week endorsed a Bush administration plan to open millions of acres of wetlands to development, now says he wants to find a "middle ground" in the environmental controversy.
The governor's office late yesterday released a letter to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator William K. Reilly, in which Schaefer stresses that proposed rules for identifying wetlands must be tested in the field to determine their impact before they are adopted.
Frank Traynor, the governor's press secretary, said that Schaefer was not backtracking on his support for the EPA proposal to rewrite what he believes are confusing rules for saying what is and isn't a wetland.
Schaefer had spoken up in support of Reilly Tuesday at a Chesapeake Bay cleanup summit in Harrisburg, Pa., saying the EPA chief was "on the right track" in making it harder to impose development restrictions on land that is "wet" only a few weeks of the year.
But Schaefer, who took over as chairman of the multistate bay cleanup effort, was practically alone in backing the move.
Pennsylvania Gov. Robert P. Casey and Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder both said they had concerns about it, and two advisory groups blasted any easing of wetlands protections.
Non-tidal or freshwater bogs, marshes and seasonally soggy lands help control pollution and flooding and provide wildlife habitat. Half the nation's historic wetlands already have been lost to farming and development.
When questioned after the summit, Schaefer acknowledged that his remarks were unlikely to please environmentalists, who warned that the new rules could lead to the development of up to 1 million acres of non-tidal wetlands in the three-state bay region.
But Schaefer said in Harrisburg that he had trouble understanding the existing federal rules after being shown a piece of land on the Eastern Shore that was classified as a wetland, even though it was surrounded by development on three sides and had "no water anywhere."
The existing rules, adopted two years ago, have drawn the ire of landowners on the Shore and in low-lying areas all over the country. They complain that the federal government is restricting XTC their rights to develop usually dry lands that never had been declared wetlands.
Reilly, saying that the federal government never planned to extend its control to 40 percent of the Shore, directed EPA to tighten federal rules for identifying wetlands. The move also apparently was aimed at heading off attempts in Congress to respond to the landowners' backlash by rewriting the Clean Water Act's wetlands protections.
But Reilly found he had to make still more concessions to development interests in bargaining with Vice President Dan Quayle to win White House approval for the new rules.
Environmentalists have attacked the proposal, contending that even land that is marshy only a few weeks in the spring still protects wildlife and helps stream water quality.
OC In the letter to Reilly, dated four days before the bay summit,
Schaefer urged EPA to "find and actively promote a middle ground" between environmentalists and landowners.
The letter was accompanied by a news release announcing that the governor "reaffirms" his commitment to protecting non-tidal wetlands.
"He's all for having something that finally defines just what is wet," Traynor said last night. But Traynor insisted that Schaefer has consistently shied away from endorsing the federal proposal before its impact has been studied.
Maryland's non-tidal wetlands also are protected by state law. But the state program relies on the federal definition of what is a wetland. Any change in federal rules could affect the state program.