Weep for the wetlands Replacements: Inferior man-made projects favored over natural resources protection.

September 22, 1997

THE CHESAPEAKE Bay Foundation's critical report on the state's protection of freshwater wetlands comes as no surprise. Gov. Parris N. Glendening and his officials have been scored for their wetlands policy and performance by the Environmental Protection Agency, members of Congress and other environmental organizations.

Sadly, the state loses more natural wetlands to builders sanctioned by the Department of the Environment, while bureaucrats boast of success in creating man-made "replacement" wetlands. It's a poor trade-off.

But the bay group's study shows that 24 percent of nontidal wetland acres destroyed by development -- nearly one in four acres -- have not been replaced, despite a law requiring it. Much of that shortfall lies with developers who haven't fulfilled permit conditions.

More important, the state program is trading inferior replacements for valuable natural wetlands. The man-made wetlands are typically less effective in filtering runoff and controlling flooding. Instead of replacing natural wetlands near streams and rivers, where they are needed, replacements are built in isolated areas; some barely qualify as wetlands. The bay foundation noted that trees are missing from 80 percent of sites meant to replace forested wetlands (the most common type lost to development), diminishing the replacement value.

Wetlands administrator Gary T. Setzer says state replacement wetlands sites are chosen because they are cheaper than other locations, shamefully exposing the state's priorities.

The administration's reliance on collecting fees for wetlands destruction rights, instead of fighting to prevent their loss, undermines the goal of long-standing state policy. It prefers to build "zoos" or "exhibit" wetlands, distant from their natural habitat and ecological importance, instead of forcing builders to find alternatives to natural wetlands despoliation. The wetlands mitigation fund originated as a means to compensate for unavoidable loss of wetlands in certain cases. But it has become a fee-collection mechanism as an alternative to rigid enforcement, a way for regulators to shirk responsibility for guarding natural resources.

Maryland does not need more mitigation replacement wetlands; it needs more vigorous protection of irreplaceable natural wetlands.

Pub Date: 9/22/97

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