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Disappearing wetlands

By Craig SavoyeStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 13, 1983



Pamlico Peninsula, N.C.

A white-tailed deer pokes its head through the thick curtain of trees and takes a tentative step into the open field. It briefly eyes the plowed farmland that stretches unbroken to the horizon, then turns abruptly and scampers back into the woods.

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It may not have that option much longer.

America's wetlands, including the pocosin forests here in coastal North Carolina, are disappearing at an alarming rate. Widely regarded as little more than mosquito-infested wastelands a scant two decades ago, they were often bulldozed over for parking lots and farmland. Now wetlands have suddenly become an environmental cause celebre.

The accelerated destruction of wetlands in the last 15 years has plunged the conservation community and official Washington into heated debate over their future. It has turned the ultimate dispensation of countless bogs, marshes, and lakes into the premier environmental issue of the 1980s.

''Laying aside environmental issues that affect human health, acid rain is the only issue competitive in priority with wetlands for the '80s,'' says William R. Brown, senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund.

Wetlands are prime spawning grounds for commercial and sport fish, breeding grounds for waterfowl, and the primary habitat of countless species of wildlife. Since European settlers first inhabited America, nearly 50 percent of all wetlands have disappeared. According to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the nation's wetlands are succumbing to the farmer's tractor, the woodsman's ax, and the developer's dragline at an average rate of 458,000 acres a year.

The pocosin wetlands of North Carolina have been greatly reduced by conversion to agricultural and other uses. Fully two-thirds of the wetlands (nearly 1.5 million acres) that existed in the state 20 years ago have now been dredged and filled, cleared and ditched, or are in the process of being converted.

Now Peat Methanol Associates in Washington County, N.C., wants to build a $ 500 million plant to mine the peat that is 6 to 8 feet deep in parts of the area and turn it into methanol. PMA owns 15,000 acres of pocosins (from the Indian word for ''swamp on a hill'') and has an option on an additional 100,000 acres. Four conservation groups have filed suit, claiming the US Army Corps of Engineers is not enforcing federal regulations that protect wetlands.

The lawsuit here and others pending around the nation are symptomatic of the larger battle now under way to save the nation's dwindling wetlands. Adverse environmental impact due to wetlands loss has led to new awareness of their importance in flood control and in maintaining water supplies and quality. It has lent urgency to conservationists' pleas for federal participation in efforts to protect the areas. But such efforts are running head-on into the policies of the development-minded Reagan administration.

Wetlands include everything from swamps, marshes, tidelands, and estuaries to ponds, lakes, river bottoms, streams, flood plains, and prairie potholes (the small and numerous lakes that dot the Midwest). Their ecological primacy is unquestioned. Some 60 to 90 percent of the fish caught commercially along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts are dependent on wetlands for some part of their life cycle.

At least half of all North American ducklings are bred in the prairie potholes of the Dakotas and central Canada. Wetlands are the last refuge of the black bear in the Carolinas, the whooping crane in Nebraska, and the river otter in Oregon. In fact, wetlands are home to one-third of all wildlife on the endangered-species list.

But the ecological import of wetlands has worked against them to some degree. In the minds of many, wetlands are little more than insect breeding grounds or a place where thick mud swallows hikers' boots. They lack the majestic scenery of a Yosemite Valley or the geological quirks of a Yellowstone Park. A perception of wetlands as fine for animals and insects but definitely of little use to recreation-seeking humans has tended to put debate over their use into a sharp development vs. preservation context, with the average citizen on the sidelines unaware of the debate or not sure whether wetlands are worth all the fuss.