A Plan for Wetlands Recovery

HERE'S a New Year's resolution for Congress and the president: Resolved, that damaged or destroyed wetlands "be restored at a rate that offsets any further loss and contributes to an overall gain of 10 million acres by the year 2010."

That's the recommendation a National Academy of Sciences committee makes in a recent report on wetlands recovery. It puts the wetlands issue in a challenging new perspective. While politicians, developers, and environmentalists argue over how to define a wetland, there are many clearly identifiable damaged wetlands that could be rescued right now.

"We can repair damaged [wetland] ecosystems to a close approximation of the condition they were in before they were disturbed," says academy committee chairman John Cairns Jr. of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University at Blacksburg. He adds that "although this is a very new field, the results from restoration are dramatic."

The continental United States has lost roughly half of the wetlands it had only a few hundred years ago. Some of these are gone forever.

But many even severely damaged and polluted wetlands can be recovered. The academy isn't suggesting utopian reform that would return "reclaimed" farm land or urban areas to wetland duty. There are enough other candidates for recovery to keep restorers busy "well into the next century," according to Mr. Cairns.

The academy isn't recommending a massive federal cure-all program, either. It recognizes that government at all levels and many corporations and private institutions have wetlands responsibilities.

But it does urge Washington to provide leadership and to establish a long-term comprehensive wetlands-recovery strategy. It also suggests that Congress set up a trust fund to help pay for wetlands restoration.

The academy is concerned with bogs, swamps, and mud flats. It also is talking about rivers, lakes, and ocean coastal zones. Taken together, these varied wetlands are a natural resource that is indispensable to national well-being.

Wetlands filter out pollution, help protect water supplies, and control floods. They provide essential breeding grounds for ocean fish and necessary habitat for a wealth of wildlife. America cannot afford to lose any more of this essential resource.

It has much to gain by restoring as many of the presently damaged wetlands as it can. That includes, for example, restoring 1 million acres of the country's 4.3 million acres of degraded lakes by the year 2000 and another million acres by 2010 - a feat the academy report calls "an achievable goal."

Members of Congress up for reelection pay lip service to environmental quality. George Bush says he wants to be an "environmental president." The academy has given them a suggested program for environmental action that is achievable and significant. Let them get on with it.

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