Save the Swamps

WHEN John Sununu gets his flying rights back, he should head out to Arcata, up on the north coast of California. There, President Bush's staff chief will see why the White House shouldn't be in such a hurry to weaken federal protection for the nation's wetlands. Back during the 1988 campaign, one of Mr. Bush's key environmental pledges was that there should be ``no net loss'' in wetlands. Thanks largely to agricultural, industrial, and residential development, more than half of all such areas in the lower 48 states had been wiped out over the past 200 years - an average of more than 50 acres every hour.

Those who continued to mindlessly drain swamps, marshes, fens, and estuaries, Bush said after the election, would find themselves up to their belt loops in alligators. It seemed to be a good beginning for an ``environmental president.''

But lately lobbyists for agriculture, mining, oil, and real-estate development have been pushing for a redefining of wetlands to make it easier for them to operate. And it seems that powerful figures in the White House are inclined to agree.

United States Fish and Wildlife director John Turner has expressed concern, and Environmental Protection Agency specialists have complained of ``intense pressure'' to turn what was supposed to be a technical review of wetlands into a de facto change in policy by redefining many wetlands out of existence and thus opening them up to development. To his credit, EPA administrator William Reilly is said to be fighting such a move. Bush himself is likely to have to settle the internal administration argument.

Wetlands are not just boot-sucking bogs ``too thick to navigate, too thin to plow.'' They provide habitat for one-third of all threatened and endangered species in this country, according to the Conservation Foundation, as well as spawning and nursery areas for most US commercial fisheries. And their vegetation is a great natural water purifier, which brings me back to Arcata, Calif.

Ten years ago, this small town faced the prospect of having to spend multimillions for a new waste-water treatment facility. After a long and complicated legal battle with state agencies, the town of 15,000 got permission to instead develop a system of ponds and marshes to filter pollutants out of partially treated water.

Today, where there used to be an abandoned mill and sanitary landfill called Mount Trashmore is a model that has attracted attention from around the country: 150 acres of reclaimed wetlands that draw 200 species of birds and other wildlife. Just a short bike ride from the middle of town, it's a beautiful and peaceful place to jog, fish, or just get away from the daily routine. The local chapter of the Audubon Society meets here every Saturday at 8:30 a.m. to observe shorebirds, waterfowl, and raptors ga lore.

Arcata, home of Humboldt State University, is a liberal town, which last week was debating whether or not to declare itself a ``nuclear-free zone.'' But the marsh and wildlife sanctuary seems to reflect many Republican values - local control in the face of big government, environmentalism that cherishes people as well as critters, and all of it at a big cost savings. The town figures it saved $2 million in capital costs and avoided far higher operating expenses by developing wetlands rather than hooking up to a big new treatment facility.

Now it may well be that wetlands regulations need fine-tuning, that federal regulators should use more common sense along with their zealousness to protect an important natural resource. Some farmers, for example, now find bureaucrats breathing down on them when they try to use cropland long since converted from swamps. There can be a reasonable balancing of environmental and economic interests here without opening the gate to housing subdivisions and shopping malls on fragile and valuable parts of the landscape. And if there is to be a new federal effort to protect wetlands (most of which are privately owned), then some compensation for what in effect might constitute a land-taking needs to be considered - although not for land speculators or developers peddling a view.

Before they start pulling the plug on wetlands, those in the Bush administration who are urging the president to finesse his pledge need to get out and actually see one and what it is they do for the environment.

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