Maryland's Man-Made Marshes

May 22, 1993

Poet Joyce Kilmer may be right that only God can make a tree, but man can certainly make a marsh. The problem is that, unlike the deity, man takes a lot longer than six days to finish the task.

Maryland's nontidal wetlands protection law went into effect more than two years ago, with the declared goal of "no net loss" of freshwater marshland. Builders have to get state permits to fill in these wetlands, minimize the area affected, and then create new inland marsh, at least acre for acre, to replace the destroyed land.

The problem is that landowners can move at their own slow pace in wetlands replacement. The result is a backlog of 76 acres of state-required wetlands creation, and a net loss of 46 acres of wetlands since the law took effect. Only 40 percent of the replacement projects are even at the blueprint stage, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation says.

The Department of Natural Resources concedes that regulations need to be tightened to prod procrastinators to repay their debts to the environment: no citations for untoward delay have been issued. Officials point out that some permit-holders can pay into a state fund, which is used to create larger marshy areas elsewhere.

Delays in building wetlands can result from careful planning and waiting for the best weather to do the job, officials explain. But no wetlands replacement debt has ever been forgiven.

The law has been a major success in stemming the destruction of Maryland wetlands. Inland wetlands acreage proposed for destruction has been reduced by one-third through project redesign in the permit review process. The permitted loss of inland wetlands is less than 5 percent of the area that was filled in and lost each year before 1991.

Because the law obligates builders to replace scarcer forested wetlands at a 2-to-1 rate, the state actually gains in the acreage of marshes and bogs that provide food and shelter for wildlife, control flooding and filter out pollutants before they reach waterways. (Non-permit efforts by state and federal government, and by private groups, have also added 79 acres of nontidal wetlands to the Maryland inventory.)

Still, wetlands delayed are wetlands denied. Rules should be tightened to force prompt compliance; perhaps completion of the replacement acreage should be required before the permitted destruction can proceed. On the other end, the much-promoted streamline permit review process is experiencing some bureaucratic blockage.

After 2 1/2 years, it's time to review and revise the regulations to ensure that the wetlands credit and debit accounts balance more closely, while promoting the broadest respect for this valuable resource.

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