Acclaimed law is failing to halt wetlands' decline Replacement efforts lag on 46 acres

April 26, 1993|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Staff Writer

A piece of marsh on Kent Island. A bit of stream bank in Baltimore County. A slice of low-lying forestland in Linthicum. All gone.

Environmentalists say that Maryland's precious freshwater wetlands continue to vanish despite a ballyhooed state law designed to protect them.

"Each [loss] may be tiny, but . . . it starts to add up," says Curtis Bohlen, a wetlands specialist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

It adds up to 46 acres -- the equivalent of 34 football fields -- bulldozed or drained since the law took effect in January 1991, Mr. Bohlen says.

The law requires the creation of at least an acre of wetlands for every one destroyed during construction.

But the net loss of 46 acres turned up when Mr. Bohlen examined the records of 574 state-approved construction projects that involved the destruction of wetlands.

Before the law took effect, Maryland already had lost three-fourths of its wetlands, Mr. Bohlen points out.

Only about 250,000 acres remain and they must be conserved, he says.

"We're not talking about taking the first 46 acres here. We're talking about a landscape that's already been significantly degraded," Mr. Bohlen says.

"It's like saying you've lost one lung already, and we'll just take a piece of the other."

Once derided as mosquito-filled nuisances, these inland marshes, bogs and low-lying forests now are protected by federal and state law.

Though less ecologically glamorous than coastal marshes, freshwater wetlands help control flooding and filter out pollution before it fouls streams.

These lands also provide food and shelter for a rich variety of plants and animals and are considered critical to the health of Chesapeake Bay.

Spurred by Gov. William Donald Schaefer, the General Assembly enacted the protective law that calls for "no net loss" of freshwater wetlands.

The legislature even set an ambitious goal of increasing the acreage.

After the law had been in effect for a year, state officials pronounced the measure an unqualified success. They also said the law simplified the permit process for construction projects on wetlands.

But some developers say they encounter maddening red tape in getting such projects approved by at least a half-dozen regulatory agencies -- local, state and federal.

"It's amazing, with all the legislation we have in Maryland, how complicated it's gotten to do any construction," says John Erickson, developer of the Charlestown Retirement Community in Catonsville. He says the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers held up one of his permits for eight months.

Under the Maryland law, landowners must replace destroyed wetlands at least acre for acre -- and 2 acres for each one of wooded wetlands, given the difficulty of re-establishing forest.

But because of a flaw in state regulations, landowners can move at their own pace on replacement and often drag their feet, says Mr. Bohlen of the bay foundation.

As of early this year, only three wetland-creation projects had been started, he says.

In one small example, Baltimore County received state permission in August 1991 to fill 6,000 square feet -- one-seventh of an acre -- of wetlands while building a bridge over Jones Falls. The bridge is finished, but the lost wetlands have not been replaced.

The unfinished backlog of man-made marsh required under state-approved construction projects now totals 76 acres, Mr. Bohlen says.

And that figure does not include the loss of wetlands from dozens of small construction projects not reported to environmental regulators. Nor does it include farming activities exempt from the law.

"We would like to have a little better accountability, to say the least," says Vivian Newman, chair of the Maryland Wetlands Committee, an environmental group.

State officials acknowledge that their regulations have defects. New rules are being drafted to shorten the time between destruction of wetlands and replacement.

William Jenkins, chief of nontidal wetlands for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, defends the state's overall record.

"I'm surprised we haven't found more things [about the law] we want to try to fix," he says.

Mr. Jenkins adds that the losses permitted by the state are offset by nearly 70 acres of wetlands created by federal wildlife agencies and by private landowners.

Of nearly 2,600 applications to fill or drain freshwater wetlands in Maryland, only one has been denied in the past two years, according to a draft state report. Another 55 were withdrawn.

A total of 61 permits, required for major projects, were issued. In addition, more than 500 small projects -- each involving losses of fewer than 5,000 square feet -- were approved.

Under the law, applicants must try to minimize or avoid wetlands destruction altogether, and state officials whittled down the acreage to be destroyed by more than one-third, state records indicate.

"The minimization side of this program has been working very well," Mr. Bohlen says.

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