Difficult wetlands issue bequeathed to Clinton Bush refuses to act on redefining areas

November 21, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration, sidestepping one of the most controversial issues remaining on its calendar, has decided that it will not act to weaken rules preventing development of the nation's wetlands, a senior White House official said yesterday.

The decision, made shortly after the election, means that President Bush is handing over to the Clinton administration the question of whether to redefine a wetland in a way that would allow more of them to be filled in or otherwise developed. Mr. Clinton's platform was generally regarded as favorable to environmental concerns.

"If we put through anything that was controversial, it would have been revisited by the next administration, so why bother?" said a senior White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The decision has almost certainly averted a final battle between environmentalists, led by William K. Reilly, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and Vice President Dan Quayle, who had led efforts over the past two years to loosen the regulations.

Mr. Quayle had taken up the fight on behalf of landowners, particularly farmers, who had argued that existing regulations, approved in 1987, put too many limits on how they could use property that was considered an environmentally sensitive wetland.

The question of federal protection of wetlands came to symbolize the debate over the environment in the 1992 presidential election.

Areas considered wetlands can include places ranging from tidal marshes along the Atlantic Coast to a depression on the prairie that fills up with flood water in rainy seasons. The marshes provide homes to a vast variety of birds, filter contaminants from water and protect higher land from floods. The prairie depression is considered crucial because half of America's waterfowl breed in them.

Under existing regulations, enormous areas could be considered wetlands that must be protected, including half of Vermont, 40 percent of Maryland's Eastern Shore and much of suburban Houston, for example.

Had the administration acted, it would have prepared a new definition of what constitutes a wetland. The new wording would have gone into a manual used by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency to determine whether waterlogged lands could be filled for planting, building or other uses under permits granted to farmers, developers and other landowners.

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