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.
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.
This view of wetlands as wasteland, or of purely ecological significance, has led to a miscalculation of their environmental importance and contributed to destructive practices that are cause for long-term concern, many conservationists say.
The spring and early summer floods that inundated Louisiana and other parts of the South came as no surprise to some wetland environmentalists. The flood plains that border on many rivers serve as holding tanks for high water, absorbing and slowly releasing the rivers' overflows. As the wetlands are drained and converted to other uses, floodwaters either inundate the newly converted land or cause flooding downstream.
''The Mississippi River has been turned into a tube that runs down the middle of the country,'' says Robert Davison, legislative representative of the National Wildlife Federation and a wetlands specialist. ''It doesn't have the wetlands anymore to absorb the runoff. Loss of wetlands in the Dakotas and all along the Mississippi is tremendously important in terms of much higher flood peaks that we see now.''
In addition, countless suburbs have in recent years been built over drained wetlands. When excessive rain falls, the area now covered with asphalt or houses prevents the earth from soaking up the amounts of water it once did - and local flooding results.
In parts of the Midwest and West, where the long-term outlook for the supply of fresh water is not optimistic, the preservation of wetlands could play an important role in maintaining water tables at current levels. Wetlands are the chief means by which aquifers (huge natural underground holding tanks of fresh water) are recharged. The wetlands hold rain and melting snow, which slowly seeps down into the aquifer, thereby replenishing ground-water supplies.
Conservationists say the alarming rate at which the massive Ogallala Aquifer in the Midwest and other aquifers are diminishing is as much the result of the loss of wetlands as it is the result of long-term weather patterns and increased demand for water.
Wetlands can also play a key role in maintaining water quality. Ecologists have concluded that 1,500 acres of marshy wetlands could theoretically remove all the organic wastes from the sewage of a city of 60,000. For towns in Florida , Michigan, and Massachusetts, it is more than theory. They use wetlands as tertiary sewage treatment plants, running secondary sewage into wetlands, letting the wetlands filter it (they benefit from the nutrients), and taking water out the other side.
In central Florida, the town of Wildwood has used a 500-acre cypress-gum swamp as a sewage treatment facility for 19 years. In the 1970s, the savings were estimated to be $80,000 a year.
Like many environmental battles, the effort to save wetlands has migrated from the prairie potholes of Nebraska and the tidal marshes of California and the Carolinas to that great flock of environmentalists, lawmakers, and bureaucrats whose primary habitat is Washington, D.C.
Controversy has grown up around the Army Corps of Engineers and its role in wetlands development. Historically, the corps has had jurisdiction over any development pertaining to inland waterways - be it a new canal or a backyard boat dock. In 1972, Congress enacted the Clean Water Act. It gave the newly created Environmental Protection Agency the responsibility for restoring the ''chemical, physical, and biological integrity'' of the nation's water. But because the corps was already in the business of regulating the goings-on in ''navigable waters,'' the corps - under EPA supervision - was given the authority to regulate the dredging and filling in ''the waters of the United States.''
That's where the trouble began. Environmentalists claim that ''the waters of the United States'' include wetlands, and thus Congress meant to endow the corps with the responsibility for protecting wetlands. They further claim that through bureaucratic inertia and regulation changes, the corps has limited the definition of wetlands and abdicated responsibility for lands that fall outside their definition of wetlands.
The point of contention is a section of the Clean Water Act numbered 404. Under it, the corps received 18,000 requests for permits to develop privately held land last year. The corps says that to expedite the permit granting procedure - without sacrificing environmental safeguards - it had to change the regulations regarding 404. The changes include a redefinition of ''wetlands'' and the creation of a nationwide permit that would exempt mining, timber, and other such activities from individual permit requirements.
''We are convinced the 404 program needed to be reformed,'' says Robert K. Dawson, deputy assistant secretary of the Army. ''We are still not convinced that the environmental safeguards of the program are bad or unnecessary, but what we are convinced of more and more is that we are not getting any environmental return from all this delay; 404 is not a good wetlands protection measure. Wetlands can be destroyed in many, many ways that don't require a 404 permit.''
The lawsuit in North Carolina pertains directly to Section 404. The four conservation groups that have filed suit are not seeking the stoppage of peat mining on private property. Rather, they want the courts to enforce what the conservationists see as the corps's permit granting or withholding responsibility. The corps has said the area does not qualify for consideration under its definition of wetlands.
In addition to the North Carolina case, a coalition of 16 environmental groups filed suit on the issue of the new corps regulations last year. They claim the interpretation of 404 leaves 88 percent of US wetlands without federal protection.
''(The corps) claims its efforts are only intended to reduce an alleged regulatory burden on the public by 404 and what they are trying to do is reduce that burden and clarify the program. But in fact I think we see a fairly consistent effort on its part to reduce the kinds of waters that are protected under the 404 program,'' says Mr. Davison of the National Wildlife Federation.
While not diminishing the importance of regulating wetlands development, many of those who seek to preserve wetlands say the battle they are fighting with the corps is at best a holding action. What is most needed, they say, is a separate and distinct wetlands acquisition and protection bill that eliminates the gray areas in current laws and sets aside critically important wetlands acreage. Enter Interior Secretary James Watt and controversy No. 2.
In March, Secretary Watt proposed a wetlands protection bill known by its acronym, POWDR (Protect Our Wetlands and Duck Resources). The bill is designed to safeguard threatened wetlands by minimizing federal subsidies that encourage landowners to convert wetlands to other uses; authorizing grants to states for conservation projects; and increasing funds for wetlands protection. It calls for doubling the cost of duck-hunting stamps and imposing entrance fees at popular wildlife refuges.
No sooner had the bill reached Capitol Hill than environmentalists pounced on it.
''I think the one point everyone agrees on is: We need to aggressively raise some money to acquire wetlands,'' says Department [of Interior] hasn't asked for any money for that purpose, so they have really opened themselves up to be blasted at for having come on as the savior of wetlands. It doesn't paint a very good picture of their real intentions.''
Eighty-seven percent of annual wetlands loss from the mid-'50s to the mid-70 's was due to the agricultural expansion. The POWDR bill would essentially exempt from consideration all the major agricultural subsidies that encourage the conversion of wetlands to farmland. In addition, the bill proposed by Secretary Watt exempts nearly all energy-related activities that are carried out on, in, or next to wetlands.
Conservationists also have complaints about some of the language in the bill. It calls for protection of environmentally ''significant'' wetlands, a word open to wide interpretation. The wetland eligible for protection would have to be more than five acres in size. The prairie potholes in the Midwest are almost all smaller in size than that. No one of them is of vital importance, but collectively they constitue the primary breeding ground for vast numbers of waterfowl.
Interior Department spokesman Phil Million argues that the subsidies that environmental groups want to see abolished have a powerful constituency, and that the treatment of subsidies in the POWDR bill reflects that political reality.
''By offering up a bill and forcing it forward, he [Secretary Watt] has provided something that Congress can build on. The secretary would be the first to admit that it isn't a perfect bill, but he deserves some credit for getting the debate started,'' says Mr. Million.
Nevertheless, the POWDR bill appears to have little chance of becoming law. Instead, preservationists are backing a bill introduced in May be Sen. John H. Chafee (R) of Rhode Island. The Emergency Wetlands Resources Act would automatically transfer $75 million a year for the next 10 years from the Land and Water Conservation Fund to the Migratory Bird Conservation fund for wetlands acquisition. The Land and Water Conservation Fund is made up of funds that the federal government receives from leasing offshore oil and gas tracts, and is authorized for federal land acquisition. The fund has a cap of $900 million each year, but a large portion of the money is never appropriated. The $75 million figure is based on estimates of the amount of money necessary to acquire the 1.6 million acres of wetlands that the US Fish and Wildlife Service has designated as top priority.The Chafee bill also seeks funds to study federal subsidies that encourage the conversion of wetlands to agricultural use. The sharp rise in the price of farmland in the 1970s made it an attractive hedge against inflation for institutional investors. That in turn caused farmers to rush to convert more wetlands to farmland. In the current climate of surplus grain production, conservationists say there may be support for legislation that would remove the incentives farmers still have for putting more land into production. ''Federal legislation is important, no question about that,'' says Brown. ''But what is really needed is a comprehensive approach, one that includes a regulatory aspect , an acquisition program, and participation on the part of the states and local groups.''In fact, that is what is beginning to happen. Many states now have wetlands protection laws, especially those situated along the nation's coastline. The rate of loss of saltwater marshes and tidal flats is diminishing in those areas because of such stringent legislation.When the Ohio-Sealy Mattress Manufacturing Company wanted to expand its plant in Randolph, Mass., it had only one place to go - straight into a marshy plot of wetlands. After hiring an environmental consulting firm, the company found it could legally build over the wetland so long as it created a wetland of similar size on the other side of the plant, where a rocky ledge was situated.The outcropping of rock was blasted with dynamite and the site excavated to six feet below the surrounding ground level. It was then back-filled with peat from the wetlands that were built over, and today it is a thriving wetlands virtually indistinguishable from its natural counterpart.Even the courts are beginning to look favorably on wetlands protection laws. In a first-of-its-kind ruling in Maine, a Superior Court judge ordered a businessman responsible for bulldozing wetlands in the town of Kittery to restore them to ecological health.In the absence of a concerted federal wetlands acquisition drive, alternative efforts to get endangered wetlands out of private hands and into ''protective custody'' are meeting with mixed results.The Nature Conservancy, a privately supported agency, recently announced a $50 million conservation program to identify and acquire critical wetland areas in all parts of the US. In partnership with the Richard King Mellon Foundation, the National Wetland Conservation Project will extend over five years and be administered through the cooperation of government, business, and private philanthropies. On the other hand, owners of wetlands who would like to donate their property to states or private conservation groups in exchange for a significant tax write-off have so far been stymied by an uncooperative Internal Revenue Service. At the conventional real estate appraisal rate the IRS allows, most wetlands owners find that the legal cost of transferring their property far exceeds any tax benefits.