Very Wet Lands

MICHAEL ZIMMERMAN

September 28, 1993|By MICHAEL ZIMMERMAN

Oshkosh, Wisconsin. -- Perhaps the members of the Senate Agriculture Appropriations subcommittee just need new reading glasses. I'm not sure how else to explain their plan to savage a Clinton administration proposal to fund the transition of farmland into wetlands. It's possible after all, that members just misread the difference between wet lands and wetlands and, knowing that the former is not looked on favorably, especially in this year of flooding, decided to vote against Mr. Clinton's initiative.

At issue is funding for the Wetlands Reserve Program. Under this federal program, farmers with eligible land can offer to restore it to permanent wetlands status in exchange for a government payment. The program would bring about a host of environmental benefits while dramatically reducing the amount of money in federal disaster aid that the government would have to spend in aid to people whose properties have been destroyed by flooding.

Because of severe underfunding last year, only a fraction of the land that farmers wanted to enter in the wetlands program was accepted. This year, approximately 54,000 acres of land rejected last year lay under water in Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin and Minnesota, and the federal government is going to have to pay millions of dollars in disaster assistance for lost crops. In essence, the Mississippi River has done what Congress refused to do; it reclaimed land that should not have been farmed in the first place.

In response to last year's pilot program, farmers from nine states offered half a million acres to the government hoping to see them transformed over time to rich, natural habitats alive with native plant and animal species. Unfortunately, money was earmarked for only one-tenth that amount. This year Congress allocated absolutely no money for the project, and, in response to President Clinton's proposal to spend $370 million on it next year, the House appropriations committee allocated only $44.45 million. Then the Senate Agriculture Appropriations committee recommended just half of that.

Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working group, nicely summed up who's behind the program. ''Farmers want this program. Environmentalists want this program. President Clinton wants this program, as did President Bush. And this year, like many years, Mother Nature wants this program.''

In a visionary report two years ago a blue-ribbon panel of scientists convened by the National Research Council addressed the issue of wetland protection. They went significantly beyond merely calling for the preservation of the nation's remaining wetlands; they advocated a ''comprehensive and aggressive'' restoration effort to reclaim previously destroyed habitats. The report called for a program yielding 10 million acres more of such critical habitats by the year 2010. The committee quoted George Bush: ''It is not enough merely to halt the damage we've done. Our natural heritage must be recovered and restored.''

The National Research Council recognized that wetlands, by acting as sponges for river overflow, often function as buffer zones during periods of high water, thus controlling flooding. The economic risks of wetland destruction become all too obviously apparent when development projects were washed over by flood waters uncommon before the habitats were so dramatically altered.

In the past 200 years, the U.S. has lost approximately half the wetlands in the lower 48 states. The rate of destruction has been phenomenal. Wetlands have been converted to farmland, shopping centers and housing developments at the astonishing rate of over 60 acres an hour -- every hour for 200 years. More than 90 percent of California and Ohio wetlands are now completely developed. The Wetlands Reserve Project would make a modest start at reclaiming some of the land.

It is virtually inconceivable that in this season of flooding, Congress can be so short-sighted as to refuse to fully fund this program. Wendy Hoffman, a budget analyst with the Environmental Working Group, recognized the absurdity of the situation. ''Instead of paying farmers to restore wetlands, Congress will end up flooding the Mississippi Valley with disaster payments.''

Michael Zimmerman is dean of the College of Letters and Sciences at University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh.

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