New wetlands policy draws mixed reviews Some fear damage to Eastern Shore

August 25, 1993|By John B. O'Donnell | John B. O'Donnell,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration's new wetlands policy drew a tentative, mixed reaction in Maryland yesterday and prompted the Eastern Shore's congressman to worry aloud that it would intensify pressure for development east of the Chesapeake Bay.

Put together over the last 2 1/2 months in an effort to end the rancor and confusion that characterized Bush administration wetlands policy, the Clinton program abandons some Bush proposals and adopts others, along with bureaucratic streamlining, bureaucratic changes, and postponement of one of the most contentious issues.

Among other things, the policy finalizes a Bush proposal to exempt from regulation 53 million acres of wetlands that farmers had drained and converted to cropland prior to 1985.

Both Rep. Wayne G. Gilchrest, the two-term Republican who represents the Eastern Shore, and an official of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation expressed concern about the development pressures this would create for farmers.

"I hope we don't have a lot of greedy developers coming down here and offering millions to farmers to rip up their land and put condos and shopping plazas in," said Mr. Gilchrest from his home in Kennedyville.

Ann Powers, vice president and general counsel for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, added that "that is a potential" result of the policy.

At the same time, the head of an Eastern Shore organization that claims to represent "13,000 mom and pop landowners in 46 states" was singularly unimpressed.

Margaret Ann Reigle, who heads the Fairness to Land Owners Committee in Cambridge, said the Clinton policy does nothing "to stop the bureaucrats who are abusing landowners." Congress, she said, should do what it has tried to avoid -- step in and set federal wetlands policy.

Some portions of the Clinton policy, such as the decision to exempt 53 million acres of former wetlands, require no further action by Congress, while others will need legislation to take effect.

The heads of the state Department of Natural Resources and the Department of the Environment said they had not seen the policy and had no comment on it. But, speaking of the confusion during the Bush administration, Torrey Brown, secretary of the Department of Natural Resources, said, "I would say we are looking forward to doing something to get off the dime."

In 1989, the Bush administration produced a set of wetlands guidelines that drew widespread criticism for being overly restrictive. That was followed by new guidelines in 1991 that were criticized for their laxness.

With the Environmental Protection Agency chief pitted against then-Vice President Dan Quayle's Competitiveness Council, the Bush administration decided after last year's election to leave the issue for Mr. Clinton. In the meantime, Congress adopted legislation to require the National Academy of Sciences to produce a definition of wetlands.

While that work, expected to be completed in the fall of 1994, is under way, the Clinton administration will continue to use a 1987 federal manual for deciding what is a wetland.

Once the National Academy of Sciences finishes its work, the Clinton administration may decide to adopt the new definition or some variation of it.

"This package breaks the gridlock that has paralyzed wetland policy in the past and represents a major advance in reforming and improving the wetlands program nationwide," an administration statement said.

"We used to have in this country in the lower 48 (states) over 230 million acres of wetlands," said an administration official at a briefing. "In 1993, we have approximately 100 million acres of wetlands, and we continue to lose wetlands at the rate of 290,000 acres per year."

Later, officials admitted that 290,000 acres is a mid-1980s figure and that the annual loss, which includes losses from natural causes, is now considerably less.

While adopting the exemption of the 53 million acres of cropland, the Clinton policy, among other things: abandons a Bush policy that threatened 1.7 million acres of Alaska wetlands with development; closes some loopholes in wetlands-protection policies; adopts a goal of "no overall net loss" of wetlands, something that was part of George Bush's 1988 campaign, along with provisions to replace lost wetlands; promises streamlined consideration of applications to alter wetlands and a new administrative appeals process only for applicants who are denied permits -- while requiring opponents of permits that are issued to go to court to appeal.

The administration said, "Federal wetlands policy should be based upon the best scientific information available."

That was music to Mr. Gilchrest's ears. "The whole thing needs to be based on the best available scientific information, not on politics," he said.

Ms. Powers, of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the new policy "has some good things we are pleased to see. On the other hand, there are elements that are troublesome," including the "lopsided appeals process."

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