WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Let me state my own position, right up front: I am a dwarf wedge mussel man, a kit fox man, a friend of the shagreen snail that dwells on Magazine Mountain in the Ozarks. Count me in a corner with the bladderpod of Colorado and the beach mouse of Florida.
I am a wetlands man, a wilderness man, a bird-watching, impractical, idealistic petal-picking amateur in the ranks of conservationists. The Endangered Species Act of 1973, which was last reauthorized in 1988, comes up for renewal this year, and I will be whooping it up for the Red Hills salamander of Butler County, Ala. Let the ugly critter alone!
Having thus established my credentials as a booster of the grizzly bear, the spotted owl and the South Dakota pothole, let me add a critical conjunction: but! But measures of conservation can be taken too far.
That is the problem that Congress and the executive agencies must deal with in defining new rules for wetlands. No issue in the field of conservation is more troublesome, if only because a federal definition of wetlands affects so many people in so many areas so drastically.
It ought to be possible to find a firm middle ground on wetlands, but extremists on both sides have seized the issue. The contest has evolved into a fight between ducks and developers, and my own inclination is to go with the ducks every time. I never met a duck I didn't like. But again, but!
The difficulties in resolving this important matter are compounded by political jabs and hooks. Back in 1988, no doubt about it, George Bush pledged his administration to ''no net loss'' of our remaining wetlands. In an interview published in Sports Afield, he went further:
''My position on wetlands is straightforward. All existing wetlands, no matter how small, should be preserved.''
This was in 1988. In 1989, the government published a new manual defining wetlands. In August of 1991, the Bush administration proposed amendments that would significantly weaken the manual of 1989.
Those amendments are now the subject of public comment. The period for comment expired on Jan. 21. A review of the comments will take a couple of months. Then what?
The White House view, if I understand it correctly, is that Mr.
Bush's pledges applied to wetlands as wetlands were defined in 1988. In supporting the 1991 amendments, Bush is charged with reneging on a campaign promise. The charge may be unfair.
The president is entitled to the doctrine of ex post facto, which holds that a man ought not to be convicted of a crime if the supposed crime was not a crime when he committed it. Mr. Bush should not be held to a promise to preserve wetlands that were not wetlands when he promised to preserve them.
What is a wetland? Congress tried to define the term in the Swampbuster Act of 1986. The Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency agreed on a definition in 1989. I spent a weekend browsing through a great thick report from the World Wildlife Fund, and I have concluded that only God knows a wetland.
After everyone agrees that an all-year swamp is certifiably a wetland, it is anyone's guess. Over what period of time, to what depth of soil, producing what vegetation, must a given parcel of land be saturated or partly saturated in order to qualify?
This is not like counting acres of corn or wheat. Wetlands cannot be precisely surveyed and their metes and bounds plotted to the last square foot. I am bound to say that the Wildlife Fund scientists make sense when they insist that surface wetness, or immediately sub-surface wetness, is not the only yardstick.
Areas that are superficially dry for much of a year may be the very flood-plain areas that most need to be preserved. The 1991 amendments, by requiring that areas be saturated for 21 ''continuous'' days, instead of 15 continuous days, would have the effect of eliminating thousands of acres that probably ought not to be eliminated. One does not have to accept all of the scare-tactic figures in the World Wildlife Fund report to believe that the 1991 revisions go too far.
Put it down as beyond argument: We must preserve vital wetlands. We must preserve as many endangered species of plants and animals as we may sensibly preserve. Ducks and developers alike are important.
On that ambivalent note, I would give the edge to the ducks. Developers can take care of themselves.
James J. Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.