The Bush administration's proposed new rules for identifying wetlands could drop 25 to 60 million acres nationwide from protection, including one-third of the freshwater wetlands in the Chesapeake Bay region, according to state and federal wetlands scientists.
Major portions of widely recognized wetlands, such as Florida's Everglades and Virginia's Great Dismal Swamp, would no longer qualify under criteria proposed in August, say government scientists.
In Maryland, up to 60 percent of the state's 285,000 acres of mapped freshwater wetlands could be declared developable, say scientists and environmentalists, including some Eastern Shore swamps and western Maryland bogs that harbor rare plants and animals.
The latest estimates of the new rules' impact, made following field tests by state and federal scientists in late August and early September, are far greater than predictions made when President Bush announced his new wetlands policy two months ago.
At that time, federal environmental officials privately
projected that a proposed new manual for identifying wetlands might effectively deregulate up to 10 percent of the nation's remaining 100 million wetland acres.
Federal wetlands scientists and regulators have been barred from discussing their assessments of the new manual while their agencies prepare to submit official comments to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency later this month.
But criticism has been mounting from environmentalists and state wetlands officials, who have made similar assessments of their own.
"Whole categories of wetlands are dropped out," said John Kusler, executive director of the Association of State Wetland Managers in Berne, N.Y. Estimates obtained from about 15 states so far indicate the new rules may drop 25 to 60 percent of the lands previously regulated as wetlands, he said.
The nation has lost more than half its original wetlands, government scientists say, and continues to lose them at the rate of 290,000 acres per year.
Bush had pledged during his 1988 election campaign to seek "no net loss" of wetlands, no matter how small. But criticism began mounting two years ago from farmers, developers, oil interests and many individual landowners, who complained that a new 1989 federal manual for identifying wetlands went too far.
The White House announced a new wetlands policy in August, which was intended in part to ensure that not "every mud puddle is a wetland." Included were revisions in the wetland manual that tightened requirements for finding water, water-loving plants and water-influenced soils.
Where the 1989 manual only required water to be within 18 inches of the surface for seven consecutive days during the growing season, the proposed manual dictates that the ground must be covered or saturated with water for up to 21 days.
Critics say the new rules also would exclude many areas long thought of as wetlands, including portions of the Everglades.
"These are wetlands that everybody has agreed are wet. These are swamps," said Linda Winter of the National Wildlife Federation.
But Margaret Ann Reigle, chairwoman of the Fairness to Landowners Committee in Cambridge, which has pushed for reducing federal wetlands regulations, called the estimates of acreage reductions "hype."
"There are too many conflicting points in the new manual for anyone to draw a line," Reigle contended. "Right now, with the way the manual is written, I do not see any significant relief for these dry lands."
Kusler said that government and private experts alike also found the new manual "almost unusable" because of complexity and confusion in the new criteria for identifying what is a wetland.
He and others predicted that it could take three to five times as long using the proposed new federal rules to delineate the boundaries of wetlands, and it could cost landowners four to five times as much.
"It's driving up the cost of doing things without protecting the resource any better and without making decisions any clearer or more accurate," said Curtis Bohlen, a wetland scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Annapolis. He called for EPA to scrap the new manual and start over revising the 1989 one.
The state wetlands managers association, which also represents private land consultants, voted recently to urge the Bush administration to delay adoption of its new manual while submitting it to further scientific scrutiny.
In the Chesapeake Bay region, field tests of the new manual indicate that 570,000 of the nearly 1.8 million acres of mapped freshwater or non-tidal wetlands in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia might drop out, Bohlen said.
Maryland stands to lose nearly all of its 171,000 acres of forested wetlands because of much tighter criteria in the new federal manual for judging whether the trees, bushes and plants on the site are typical of wetlands, he said.