Wetlands: A Breath of Relief

November 26, 1991

"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.

It is encouraging that the White House finally listened to the government's own staff scientists. The Council on Competitiveness, headed by Vice President Quayle, cannot be allowed to run amok simply because its political gauges say "all ahead full." Competitiveness in the economic arena cannot truly be enhanced by cannibalizing ecologically sensitive wetlands. In any case, the United States is not in competition with Japan or Western Europe in a race to develop American real estate.

The Council on Competitiveness is trying to take credit for putting the wetlands debate into the public domain, but that's taking things a bit far. Protests over a wetlands policy that would have had Draconian results would have ensued whether the council's proposed rules ever made it into the Federal Register. What's needed now is a return to the scientists' grist mill, where definitions mean thorough study of ecological requirements and not politically motivated decisions. Research over the last two decades shows that wetlands actually can be invented where none were before, but that is vastly more difficult than preserving wetlands already in place. The White House should

keep an eye on that bottom line in the future.

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