Disappearing Act in the Wetlands

January 29, 1995

Despised as dismal swamps and damnable potholes in many parts of this country, wetlands are highly appreciated today in most of the Chesapeake Bay region for their contributions to water filtration, flood control and wildlife habitat.

Maryland, in particular, has been a leader in protecting these valuable natural resources that are vital to the bay's health, with strict permit programs to limit wetlands loss and requirements for their replacement by man-made marshland.

The Chesapeake Executive Council of state and federal leaders committed in 1988 to a goal of "no net loss" of wetlands in the estuary region, an objective later adopted by the Clinton administration for the 270 million acres of U.S. wetlands.

Yet a recent report by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation calculates 4,500 acres of wetlands are lost in the bay watershed each year, by illegal filling and by legal loopholes. Most of these affected wetlands do not appear in state or federal permit program books.

The reasons for these wetlands losses are varied: legal exemptions from permit programs of certain forestry, farming and building activities; destruction through "general" permits 11 that do not specify the extent of losses; lack of requirements in permits for replacement wetlands as mitigation, and inadequate enforcement programs to detect and prosecute illegal filling of marshlands.

More public input in permit hearings would help regulators to recognize the impact and extent of their decisions, and force them to consider alternatives to wetlands filling, the foundation argues. Regulatory agencies need to encourage more redesign of projects by permit applicants to minimize wetlands losses.

Permit programs have had a positive effect in retarding wetlands destruction, despite the fact that they grant "permission" to eliminate these natural resources. Annual losses of freshwater wetlands are less than 5 percent of the yearly losses prior to enactment of Maryland's 1989 permit law.

Besides toughening enforcement and shrinking legal loopholes, the bay foundation argues that permits allowing replacement of lost wetlands by man-made structures are often ineffective. Commitments may not be enforced, or the artificial bogs are less ecologically valuable than natural wetlands. But the foundation urges expansion of wetlands restoration programs, outside the permit programs, as an important means of maintaining the Chesapeake watershed's natural vitality.

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