Half are already gone. Protecting the remaining half should be a priority concern, says a coalition of environmental, government, and business interests.
The item in question: the nation's wetlands.
The marshes, swamps, and tidal flats which are indispensable to a healthy environment require more efficient regulation, says a report released yesterday by the National Wetlands Policy Forum. Without greater protection, wetland areas - which are spawning grounds for shellfish, habitat for waterfowl, and aid in natural flood control - could be lost to short-sighted development or public indifference to their fate, the report says.
``It would appear that we've been losing them wholesale,'' says William Reilly, president of the Conservation Foundation, the forum's organizer and publisher of the report.
The forum, chaired by New Jersey's Republican Gov. Thomas Kean, recommends in its 69-page study the adoption of a national wetlands policy which includes:
A national goal of no net loss of wetlands;
The introduction of tax breaks and other economic incentives for timber, agricultural, real estate and industrial developers to slow or curtail wetland destruction;
The restructuring and streamlining of federal regulations designed to protect wetlands;
The delegation of primary responsibility for wetland regulation to states.
In the past 300 years, experts say, as much as 80 percent of American wetlands have been destroyed by agriculture - as the nation's westward expansion gobbled up vast acreages of wetlands for farming. In recent years, however, real estate and industrial development have increasingly encroached on wetland areas - filling marshes for construction projects or polluting them with discharges from newly created industrial and residential areas.
At least three federal agencies - the Environmental Protection Agency, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Army Corps of Engineers - are responsible for wetlands regulation. Environmentalists complain this results in uneven enforcement.
Participants in the forum's working group express some surprise that the final report ever made it to print - given the long history of battles between developers and environmentalists over wetland preservation.
``At the outset of the process, organizations were fairly skeptical as to whether we would be able to agree on much of anything,'' says J. Scott Feierabend of the National Wildlife Federation. ``There's so much baggage related to wetlands.''
``We were surprised that there was any room for compromise,'' adds Steven N. Meyer, of the National Association of Conservation Districts, an agricultural lobby group. ``We were leery of some of the environmental groups and their talk. But there was a move away from that real hard core position on their part.''
Though participants from all sides say the consensus-building process forced compromises on positions, and consequent ambiguities in the final report, most view creation of a national policy goal as a major step forward in wetlands preservation and regulation.
```No net loss' is a unifying standard to which all federal agencies can repair and all the various organizations can work to implement,'' says Mr. Reilly.
Reilly and others point with satisfaction to the fact that President-elect George Bush has already embraced the `no net loss' ideal in his campaign statements - a tribute, they say, to the influence of Governor Kean and Conservation Foundation Chairman Russell Train, both of whom advise Mr. Bush on environmental issues.
Despite the unity found in the national goal, however, forum participants say the differences over wetland issues between environmentalists and developers are far from settled.
``Everybody's going to pick up their piece of the report and run with it,'' says the National Wildlife Federation's Mr. Feierabend.
The forum was convened in the summer of 1987 at the request of Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lee Thomas.
A Nov. 15 article on wetlands protection incorrectly stated that agriculture has destroyed as much as 80 percent of American wetlands in the last 300 years. The statement should have read that of the wetlands destroyed in that period, 80 percent have been lost to agriculture.