Nation's wetlands continue to vanish 1 million acres disappeared from 1985 to 1995, U.S. reports

March 08, 1998|By John H. Cushman Jr. | John H. Cushman Jr.,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- More than 1 million acres of U.S. wetlands vanished from 1985 to 1995, a period in which the government imposed tough new protections for the threatened ecosystems and set a national goal of ending the losses, the Clinton administration has estimated.

In the first comprehensive survey of the nation's wetlands to be published since 1990, and the first to try to show the effects of those new policies, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that during the decade wetlands continued to disappear at an average rate of 117,000 acres a year. The Clinton administration has been saying that the losses in recent years were considerably less than that.

The agency called the report good news, saying it showed that the rate of loss had steadily declined over the last four decades. In the decade that was studied, new policies under federal clean-water and agriculture laws were just beginning to take hold, agency officials said. In the previous decade, from 1975 to 1985, wetland losses amounted to nearly 3 million acres.

'Exciting news'

"This is really exciting news to all of us," said Jamie Clark, the director of the wildlife agency. "It is my hope that 10 years from now my successor will be able to stand here and tell you that we have finally achieved our no-net-loss goal."

Even so, the persistent loss of wetlands from 1985 to 1995 amounted to about 1 percent of the wetlands that remain in the lower 48 states, which have now lost more than half the wetlands that existed in Colonial times.

The latest estimate disclosed some areas of particular concern, especially among the forested wetlands of the Southeast, where half the losses occurred. It also showed surprisingly large losses on agricultural lands, and suggested that the goal of ending wetland losses altogether remained elusive.

Aside from their use by fish, birds and other wildlife, wetlands are considered essential because they filter contaminants from water and because they provide spongelike storage for heavy rains that otherwise would cause damaging floods.

In 1985, federal agencies began to toughen enforcement of the Clean Water Act's wetlands protections, and Congress imposed new limits on agricultural conversion of wetlands to croplands. President George Bush later declared the no-net-loss policy, which has been the Clinton administration's goal as well.

The latest survey showed the loss of 2.5 million acres of forested wetlands, particularly valuable areas, compared with 4.8 million acres lost in the previous 10 years. The latest losses amounted to 5 percent of the 50 million acres of forested wetlands that now remain.

To some extent, the loss of forested wetlands was offset when acres were converted by logging to a less valuable type, where only shrubs remain, and this type of wetland actually increased. Other forested wetlands were drained altogether and converted to pine farms or to cropland.

Freshwater ponds increase

The report also said the acreage of freshwater ponds had increased nearly 14 percent and is now about equal to the area of all intertidal wetlands in the country. But overall, the gain of wetlands was overshadowed by the loss, it said.

That assessment was disputed by Jonathan Tolman of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a leading critic of regulatory programs that control development of wetlands. Tolman said that the agency's data were years old and that the loss of wetlands had actually been largely halted across much of the country.

Officials discounted Tolman's work, which has found no net loss of wetlands over the last decade. Tolman said the gains had been a result of voluntary programs based on financial incentives. But federal experts said that his estimate counted improvements in the condition of existing wetlands as a gain in acreage and that it was not as accurate as their survey.

The federal data were based on nationwide sampling using aerial photographs, supplemented by checking on the ground for accuracy.

Pub Date: 3/08/98

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