"No net loss" of sensitive wetlands had a nice ring when presidential candidate George Bush said it in 1988, but the actual workings of President Bush's policy machine left many environmentalists quaking with anger. An estimated 400,000 acres of wetlands a year were disappearing even before the White House's stunning announcement of a wetlands policy that, had it reached implementation, would have lopped off half of the nation's remaining wetlands. These areas may look like so much surplus, unusable land to many farmers and developers, but they are critical to the health of waterways such as the Chesapeake Bay.
Wetlands act as natural filters for pollutants, excess nutrients from storm water runoff and farm-field runoffs. They serve as FTC sponges to soak up excess water. And wetlands provide breeding grounds, sanctuary and habitat for species of wildlife vitally necessary to life on land. It's easy to forget all this if you're the owner of potentially valuable real estate, but too much damage has already gone unnoticed -- half of all the United States' wetlands since 1776 have been destroyed.
The Bush administration's flip-flop came after scientists from the Fish and Wildlife Service, the EPA, the Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies conducted a "field review" of the projected new policy. The result: Virginia's Great Dismal Swamp would magically shrink, much of it ruled by administrative fiat to be non-wetlands. So would Florida's Everglades, a national treasure already requiring emergency resuscitation, and much of the wetlands of the Eastern Shore of Maryland.