SNOW HILL -- In the age-old struggle between man and nature, Bruce Nichols is helping the other side.
The bearded biologist is taking low-lying Eastern Shore farmland that had been laboriously drained over the centuries to raise corn or livestock and making it swampy again.
Roaming back roads like a traveling salesman, Nichols and other conservationists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture have been persuading farmer after farmer to let them flood fields and woodlands.
He figures they have returned about 1,000 acres to their natural marshy state in the past few years. He says they can do the same with thousands more.
"It's going to change back to what it was," says Nichols, the agency's district conservationist for Worcester County. "All these areas previously were wetlands."
Nichols is in the vanguard of a new environmental movement. After decades of bitter wrangling over protecting wetlands with laws, many involved in the struggle are coming together to voluntarily restore these dwindling and once-maligned natural systems.
Driving the change is a growing recognition of the vital role wetlands play in protecting drinking water, preventing floods and sustaining wildlife.
Elected officials from President Clinton on down have committed hundreds of millions of dollars to creating new wetlands or restoring those that were drained or bulldozed years ago.
"We seem to be on the verge of a major new effort to restore wetlands and the physical structures of rivers and estuaries," said Timothy Searchinger, with the Environmental Defense Fund Washington.
Duck hunters have long valued wetlands. Hunting groups and government wildlife agencies have been creating or restoring swamps to improve waterfowl hunting for more than 50 years.
Within the past decade, though, large-scale efforts have been launched in the name of flood control or pollution cleanup to restore marshland along the Mississippi River, in Louisiana's bayous and in Florida's fabled Everglades.
In the Chesapeake Bay region, state and federal officials hope creating and restoring wetlands will help revive America's largest estuary, polluted by fertilizer running off farmland and suburban lawns. Until now, much of the bay cleanup has focused on expensive overhauls of sewage treatment plants.
Without setting a deadline, Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening has pledged to create or restore 60,000 acres of marshland. That would replace what the state has lost to development since World War II.
Nationwide, the Clinton administration has set a similarly ambitious goal of increasing the nation's wetlands by 100,000 acres a year, beginning in 2005.
The high-profile attention to replacing lost wetlands is a bonanza for Nichols, 48, who says he first got his feet wet re-flooding a farmed-over swamp in Florida 25 years ago.
With all the government and private initiatives to restore marshland now, he said, "we've never had so many tools before."
"We've lost so much through man's activities," Nichols said. "This gives us an opportunity to replace some."
Centuries of draining
Once reviled as dreary mosquito havens, wetlands have been drained and filled since Europeans colonized North America. About half the nation's original bogs, marshes and swamps have been destroyed.
In the late 18th century, 24 percent of Maryland's total area was wetlands, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Now it's down to 7 percent.
For the past 26 years, since Congress passed the Clean Water Act, wetlands have been protected by regulations that require landowners to get permits before destroying them and to replace what they bulldoze. Maryland and other states have adopted their own restrictive laws as well.
The regulations have slowed but not halted wetland losses. Nationwide, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that 117,000 marshy acres disappear annually. In the Chesapeake region, while tidal wetlands losses have been reduced to about 5 acres a year, about 2,800 acres of freshwater marshes vanished annually through the 1980s. No recent figures are available.
Meanwhile, Congress and the courts have become battlegrounds in a running dispute over what lands are wetlands and whether their environmental importance merits limiting the owners' right to use their properties as they wish.
In a highly publicized clash in Maryland, Interstate General Corp. and its chairman, James Wilson, were convicted on federal charges of illegally filling more than 50 acres of wetlands while building a Columbia-style planned community in Charles County.
An appeals court overturned the conviction late last year, freeing the company from having to replace all the low-lying spots it was accused of destroying. However, IGC took some steps anyway to create marsh near its Dorchester Estates subdivision.
Even when landowners do replace wetlands sacrificed for development or highways, the results are often disappointing.