Fighting for wetlands Court decision: Federal oversight crucial to protection of these valuable natural resources.

January 15, 1998

A FEDERAL COURT DECISION overturning Army Corps of Engineers protection of invaluable wetlands itself must be reversed, or there will be dramatic consequences for the Chesapeake Bay.

For decades, developers have argued that the federal law used by the corps to regulate all wetlands applied only to "navigable" waters, those related to transportation. That position has not prevailed in various legal cases.

But a three-judge appellate panel last monthdeclared "invalid" the corps' authority over most freshwater wetlands in Maryland, Virginia and the rest of the mid-Atlantic district. The implications for nationwide protection of these natural resources -- water filters, flood and erosion controls, wildlife habitat -- is unsettling.

Maryland could be a major loser in this environmental battle. While the state has its own wetlands protection and permit laws, federal oversight (potential or real) is a strong deterrent to wetlands destruction. It's a tool that Maryland lawmakers have used to prompt action by the state agency in enforcing the state law. While the corps has delegated much wetlands responsibility to the state, the federal agency retains legal authority.

Maryland depends on its wetlands for critical environmental protections. Three-quarters of the state's marshland has been lost since Colonial times. Experts estimate that half the remaining 600,000 acres, and millions of acres nationwide, would be at risk under the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' decision.

The appeals panel acted on the conviction of developer James J. Wilson. He was convicted of willful violation of federal wetlands law in building the community of St. Charles in Charles County. In a 2-1 decision, the panel ordered a new trial for Mr. Wilson, concluding that the government needed stronger evidence to prove his knowing violation of the law. But the panel majority also declared that the affected site was too remote from "navigable waters" for the corps to have jurisdiction.

The Justice Department now has correctly asked the appeals court to reconsider its decision. Regardless of whether Mr. Wilson is retried, the appeals panel opinion seriously endangers our irreplaceable wetlands and our environment.

Pub Date: 1/15/98

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