Quayle plans final push to ease wetlands rules

November 12, 1992|By John H. Cushman Jr. | John H. Cushman Jr.,New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- Vice President Dan Quayle and his staff are planning a last-ditch attempt to loosen rules that prevent landowners from developing wetlands, a move that would touch off a final battle within the Bush administration over one of its thorniest environmental policies.

The attempt would please landowners such as farmers, whose lobbyists have been pressing hard for the administration to make the change before leaving office.

But the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, William K. Reilly, who would have to approve any such change, said in an interview that he was satisfied with the current wetlands rules, which date to 1987. His remarks signaled that he is not willing to endorse proposed changes that have been under negotiation within the administration for months.

A senior official on Mr. Quayle's staff said there is "a split of opinion" within the administration on whether to proceed with the changes and that they probably could be made only if all parties, including Mr. Reilly, were satisfied with a compromise.

White House officials on both sides of the dispute said Mr. Quayle's staff on the Council on Competitiveness, a group headed by the vice president that reviews regulations with an eye on cutting costs to industry, wants to make the changes by the end of the year.

A revised definition of wetlands would appear in the manual used by the Army Corps of Engineers and the EPA in deciding whether farmers, developers and other landowners are issued permits to fill in watery tracts, allowing the areas to be planted or developed.

The staff director of the council, David McIntosh, along with other aides who have worked for years to revise the wetlands manual, were said by other White House officials to be preparing "a hard push" to complete the revisions before leaving office.

Congressional approval would not be necessary for the changes.

A renewed clash over wetlands would revive one last time the kind of internal struggle that has long divided competing interest groups within the Bush administration -- Mr. Reilly and his environmentalist allies on the one hand and the anti-regulatory Quayle council and its business allies on the other.

The difference is that Mr. Reilly, whose efforts to have the United States sign the global warming treaty and his stands on other environmental issues have been pointedly rejected in the past, has time on his side now and probably will prevail.

For Mr. Quayle's forces, however, this is an ideological and political battle they still want to fight. They feel that in his last weeks as vice president, Mr. Quayle, with an eye to the 1996 Republican presidential nomination, can make a last effort on behalf of key constituencies that are important to his party, including farmers and developers.

In recent years, as the Quayle council has been harshly criticized by Democratic lawmakers and environmentalists for delaying and weakening numerous regulations, its wetlands policy was one of its most widely attacked initiatives.

At a White House meeting Friday to review regulatory matters pending during the lame duck period, the wetlands issue was among the most prominent ones that senior officials said they wanted to pursue, one official said.

Although wetlands are sometimes viewed as useless swamps and prairie potholes, ecologists value them because they shelter many species, filter contaminants from water and provide buffers against floods.

President Bush, in his 1988 campaign, pledged to halt the decline in wetlands acreage. Although the annual loss was not eliminated, it was slowed during his tenure.

But two years ago, under pressure from farmers and development groups, the administration sought to redefine wetlands, which meant applying Mr. Bush's "no loss" pledge to much smaller areas.

A revision of the manual used to define wetlands, which was drafted in 1991 over the objections of Mr. Reilly, was withdrawn by the White House a year ago after a survey by the Corps of Engineers supported the view of environmentalists.

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