What Makes a Wetland Wet? And Who Cares?

December 08, 1991|By LIZ BOWIE | LIZ BOWIE,Liz Bowie covers environment for The Sun.

It all began in 1989 when a bunch of scientists attempted to draw a line.

Boiled down, they simply wanted to distinguish between the nation's wet land and its dry land.

They produced a technical manual with arcane vocabulary that would send most people into a deep sleep after reading the first page. It described all the tests a biologist should go through to decide whether land should be classified as a wetland. It talked about anaerobic soils, hydrophytic vegetation and the number of days of saturation.

Today, that document is at the center of this year's biggest environmental battle. On one level, the struggle is over what wetlands should be protected. But that question has almost become lost in the shouting over protection of private property and over whether George Bush is the environmental president he says he is.

"I am really discouraged these days because I see the debate becoming more and more polarized, and I hear more and more buzzwords," said Curtis Bohlen, a wetlands biologist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

The debate "has gotten away from what is reasonable . . . toward a political debate. We have an administration that has waffled back and forth on the issue," said Lawrence R. Liebesman, a Baltimore attorney who represents Maryland home builders.

On one side are farmers, developers, landowners and oil companies who complain that the federal government has just grabbed millions of acres from landowners without compensation.

Land that before 1989 was considered dry was suddenly classified as wet, they say, and therefore the landowner must apply to the state government or the Army Corps of Engineers for a permit to build. Several bills before Congress would attempt to compensate landowners either with direct payments

or tax credits.

On the other side is the environmental community arguing that President Bush is reneging on a campaign promise to protect wetlands. They say tens of millions of acres of the most environmentally sensitive land could be lost.

In the 1970s, wetlands were thought of as areas like Chesapeake Bay's salt water marshes that filled with geese and ducks each winter and were the nursery for all types of critters -- animal and fish.

But today, scientists generally recognize that there are millions of acres of woods in the East Coast, prairie potholes in the West and Alaskan tundra that should be considered just as valuable for their ability to filter pollutants before they reach streams and ground water, to prevent flooding and to provide habitat for animals.

So those soggy woods in central Maryland that make shoes muddy on a winter walk may well be wetlands.

The federal agencies that had a say in protecting these "non-tidal wetlands" believed the manual they were using (the 1987 version) was not as clear as it should be. And so, in 1989, the four agencies came to a unified understanding and wrote a second, new manual.

That manual caused an immediate outcry from the public when it became clear that thousands of acres, including land that had been drained years ago and was now growing soybeans, might be considered wetlands. Farmers were outraged that they might have to apply for a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers to build a barn or an outhouse on the land.

The revolt was understandable, said Catherine Pieper Stevenson, chief of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. And so Maryland, which had just passed its own non-tidal wetlands laws, quickly provided broad exemptions to farmland that was already growing crops.

But the federal government did not react for almost a year, she said, and in the meantime, the crowds of landowners saying the government had gone too far grew more furious.

"The policy people at the federal level didn't apply common sense quickly enough," Ms. Stevenson said.

Pressure built quickly on the Bush administration to find a more radical solution. And some developers saw the opportunity to blow the issue out of proportion purposely as a way to beat back environmental regulation, said a Bush administration source who has worked on the wetlands issue for years.

"It has been a very effective campaign that has created the illusion of a major backlash against the program," he said. Some of the distortions included assertions that farmers would have to stop farming their land or that 80 or 90 percent of Dorchester County on the Eastern Shore was wetland. "It wasn't effectively countered by the environmental community," he said, a claim that James Tripp, senior counsel at the Environmental Defense Fund, agrees with. Environmentalists did not anticipate the backlash and did not begin lobbying the White House until it was too late.

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