Balancing Act in the Wetlands

September 19, 1993

President Clinton's new wetlands policy sets a familiar course of compromise, split the difference, end the gridlock, get win-win results: it balances economic interests with environmental needs and satisfies neither save-it nor pave-it advocates.

The Clinton program, aimed at protecting the 270 million acres of essential bogs and marshes of America, marks a departure from the political confusion and paralysis of the Bush years and steers toward a sensible resolution of a complex issue.

It declares as national policy "no net loss of wetlands," which have been disappearing at the rate of more than 200,000 acres a year, and pledges to increase that natural resource. The definition of wetlands is still imprecise, but will be left to the National Academy of Science to determine.

All of Alaska's wetlands will come under federal protection, scrapping the Bush plan to exempt delicate coastal areas and fisheries of that vast state. The "excavation rule" loophole will be closed: that allows developers to clear, dig and drain any wetlands before applying for a permit, so long as they don't dump dirt on it.

But miners and developers will get firm deadlines for permit processing and speedy appeals, ending bureaucratic delays. Builders can pay into a fund to restore wetlands elsewhere to replace those they drain, a policy similar to that used with success in Maryland since 1991. With a strict permit program, Maryland requires developers to replace destroyed nontidal wetlands at least acre-for-acre to maintain its 250,000 acres of marsh.

The Clinton policy's biggest concessions are to farmers, for political expediency. Some 53 million acres of wetlands drained and converted to farming before 1985 are exempted from regulation. They could now be converted from cropland to tract housing and shopping malls without restraint.

Enforcement of the wetlands rules for farmers will be left to the Agriculture Department, whose traditional role of promoter rather than regulator is suspect. Doubters need only look at the agency's weak hand in curbing water pollution by farm pesticides and fertilizers.

Millions of acres of wetlands have been lost to human ignorance and greed, the losses painfully evident in broader flooding, threatened wildlife and dirtier drinking water. The devastating summer floods occurred in the Upper Mississippi, the area of the greatest loss of wetlands to human activity.

The Clinton plan will require congressional action to revise the Clean Water Act, money to back it up and firm regulatory enforcement in the field. Maryland's successful program in protecting its wetlands should be little changed, mostly for the better. But the nation as a whole can clearly benefit from a consistent and certain regulatory course to protect these essential ecosystems.

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