Soggy political ground

Anthony Lewis

August 12, 1991|By Anthony Lewis

BOSTON — MY POSITION on wetlands is straightforward, George Bush said in his 1988 campaign. "All existing wetlands, no matter how small, should be preserved."

When he became president, Bush appeared to carry out that promise. The Environmental Protection Agency and three other federal agencies issued regulations protecting about 100 million acres of marsh, tidal zones and other moist lands from destructive development.

But recently, under pressure from real estate developers, oil and mining companies, the Bush administration turned turtle. It moved to open millions of wetland acres to development. It did so by a political device wonderful in its ingenuity and hypocrisy.

The administration simply redefined the word "wetland." The new definition turned as much as 10 million acres of wetlands into ordinary ground, outside the protective rules. Presto magico! George Bush's pledge is preserved, and the developers get their way.

The device is reminiscent of one in "Iolanthe," the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta that spoofs the House of Lords. The peers are outwitted by a band of fairies with whom they fall in love.

A fairy law provides that "every fairy must die who marries a mortal." When the fairies disclose they have all secretly married peers, their formidable fairy queen wants to carry out the law but worries that she "can't slaughter the whole company." Then the lord chancellor says:

"Allow me, as an old equity draftsman, to make a suggestion. The thing is really quite simple. The insertion of a single word will do it. Let it stand that every fairy shall die who doesn't marry a mortal, and you are out of your difficulty at once!"

They all live happily ever after.

The Bush administration trick with wetland regulations is of a similarly neat character. But it is not funny, and Americans will not live happily as a result. Not us, and not our children. The fish and shellfish and birds we value, the very water we drink will all suffer.

Wetlands are among the most important ingredients of the environment. They filter water as it flows from land into streams. They feed aquatic life and provide habitats for migratory birds. They are also extremely fragile. Some fill or a few houses will kill the function once performed by a marsh as a source of life.

Using marginal wetlands for farming also has an adverse environmental effect. The runoff of agricultural chemicals is a major factor in the deterioration of water quality.

Farm interests were one of the forces behind the sabotage of the wetlands rules. As originally issued, the regulations included some cultivated land, especially in the Midwest, and farmers had a legitimate reason to complain that the rules made such land unsalable.

The regulations could have been amended without gutting them to meet the farmers' objections. But other interests saw an opportunity. Big oil companies, mining and real estate firms formed a lobbying group called the National Wetlands Coalition. Using the logo of a bird flying over a marsh, this organization set out to gut wetlands protection.

The lobbying effort was extraordinarily well financed -- and effective. Congress, besieged, introduced bills to undo the wetlands regulations.

It was a familiar Washington struggle: between the concentrated power of special interests and the unfocused general public interest. The public interest was very large in this instance, now and for the future. But the public on the whole was uninformed and unrepresented.

In those circumstances one person above all is in a position to speak for the public interest: the president of the United States. But President Bush did not resist the special-interest lobbying. A White House task force on wetlands, headed by a pro-business presidential assistant, pushed for weakening the regulations.

In the end, EPA administrator William K. Reilly decided that he must give ground or be crushed. The new, narrow definition of wetlands will soon be published for comment. Unless the public miraculously understands what is being done to it, and rises up, we shall have highways and shopping malls and golf courses where wetlands used to be.

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