Policy distortion

October 08, 1991

George Bush is playing rhetorical games with the nation's wetlands policy. During his 1988 campaign, Bush -- who wants to be the "environmental president" -- pledged "no net loss" of wetlands, the coastal marshes, swamps and prairie potholes that flood seasonally. But sticking to that commitment would have put about 100 million acres nationwide off limits to bulldozers and cranes. Developers and oil and lumber companies complained.

So the President's Council on Competitiveness, chaired by Vice President Dan Quayle, simply recommended changing the definition of wetlands. Voila. Millions of acres could be opened for development but, technically, not one acre of "wetland" would be lost.

The redefinition, Bush insists, effectively balances the protection of "wetlands" with "the need for sustained economic growth and development." But that's a fraud. As a result of the new definition, as much as half the previously protected acreage in the United States could fall prey to development or drilling -- from chunks of the Alaskan tundra to hundreds of thousands of acres of the Florida Everglades.

One-third of the freshwater wetland in the Chesapeake Bay region -- most of it well-suited for condos with a view -- will no longer be off limits to builders. So, too, many of Maryland's forested non-tidal wetlands will be open to development -- and at a high social and fiscal cost: When developers fill in marshy areas, the natural pollution control provided by wetlands must be replicated by cities and industry.

The price for replacing the 570,000 acres of wetlands in the bay region with equivalent pollution control, for instance, could reach $1.5 billion. Nationwide it could top $100 billion. More costly, however, is the loss of natural resources that serve as recreation areas and breeding grounds for all manner of plants, birds and fish.

There is still a little time remaining for public comment, and Marylanders should seize it. Saving the bay is going to take more than fancy, new license plates and bumper-sicker sloganeering. It is going to take public outrage at its destruction.

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