WASHINGTON -- Bush administration officials backed away yesterday from their proposal to redefine wetlands after federal scientists concluded that such a change could open nearly half the currently protected areas to development.
Any proposal will be revised to honor President Bush's 1988 campaign pledge that there will be no net loss of wetlands while he is president, said David Beckwith, a spokesman for Vice President Dan Quayle. Mr. Quayle is chairman of the Council on Competitiveness, whose staff members wrote the most recent revision of the wetland definition.
Critics of the administration's environmental policies said the latest action appeared to be a setback for Mr. Quayle's council, since its staff had revised the guidelines proposed by four federal agencies to make it more difficult for wetlands to qualify for protection.
The aim of the proposed change was to help ease concerns about the wetlands rules among such industries as oil and land development.
It was the second time this week that the administration had shifted its stance in an area of domestic policy. On Wednesday, White House officials said Mr. Bush would issue guidelines ordering federal agencies to phase out the use of racial preferences and quotas in hiring. But the next day the White House said no such change in federal regulatory policy would be made.
On the wetlands issue, Mr. Beckwith said the amount of wetlands counted in 1988, an estimated 100 million acres, would be the basis for the new rules. "When we are finished with the regulation, more wetlands may be protected, but there will not be less," he said.
The federal scientists had concluded in field studies over the last three months that the definitions under consideration would have lifted protection for nearly half of the nation's wetlands.
Moreover, 29 states that now have wetlands would no longer have any under the proposal, the Army Corps of Engineers said in a summary of the field studies.
"This is really breathtaking," said Representative Gerry E. Studds, D-Mass., who had obtained a copy of the field studies. "Since the country was founded 200 years ago, we have lost about half our wetlands. Now, with a single stroke of the pen, the White House is proposing to define away half of what we have left."
Mr. Beckwith said no final decision had been made about a wetland definition, but another federal official who worked on the regulations said, "What we have seen from the field data clearly shows that what we must do is go back to the table and begin a serious review of the manual" defining what a wetland is.
Wetlands play an important role in nature, filtering contaminants out of water, absorbing large amounts of water with the effect of preventing floods and providing habitat for many plants and wildlife species.
Under current law, permits from the Corps of Engineers are required to build on, fill in or dredge wetlands.
Some of the wetlands that would shrink substantially under the council's proposal include the Great Dismal Swamp of Virginia, the Everglades of Florida and the Eastern Shore wetlands of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia.