AMTRAK passengers heading west from New York City are often surprised to find they are suddenly surrounded by wetlands in an otherwise dense urban development area just east of Newark.The state of New Jersey has what some experts consider the strongest freshwater wetlands protection law in the nation. Yet environmentalists here say it takes constant monitoring to keep the law tough and the bulldozers out. Shrinking acreage Development pressure is strong and growing. An estimated two-thirds of the original wetlands acreage in the Hackensack Meadowlands, for instance, the area visible from the Amtrak windows, has already been lost, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). By conservative estimates, the US itself loses some 200,000 acres of wetlands each year. The struggle to preserve more of New Jersey's wetlands takes on added significance when viewed against the backdrop of the strong political fight now under way in Washington to tighten the federal definition of wetlands. President Bush vowed during his 1988 campaign there would be "no net loss" in US wetlands. Yet under strong pressure from farmers and developers, the Bush administration is now considering a newly restrictive definition of wetlands, stipulating that they include more water, that it be closer to the surface and visible for over a longer period of time than previously required. Many New Jersey environmentalists and state officials have written in protest to the administration. Among them is Gov. James Florio who just last week proposed a water-quality bond issue that would set aside $100 million to preserve open space along waterways. If approved by the New Jersey Legislature, it would go on the ballot in November. If Washington's definition of wetlands is narrowed, most of the forested areas of New Jersey would no longer qualify because the state relies on the federal wetlands description, says Abigail Fair, coordinator of the New Jersey Freshwater Wetlands Campaign. That broad coalition is largely responsible for the state's strong 1987 wetlands law calling for a 150-foot buffer between wetlands and any development. Ms. Fair says she thinks any change in Washington could also spur efforts to weaken New Jersey's law and confuse the state's current $4 million effort, almost finished, to map the location of its wetlands. "We need [a strong] national law to help us preserve what we've got," insists Ed Lloyd, director of the Rutgers Environmental Law Clinic in Newark. New Jersey environmentalists also face ample challenges on the home front. The tough state law suffered a sharp setback last December when New Jersey Attorney General Robert Del Tufo issued a ruling exempting from wetlands protection developer proposals submitted before a certain date for subdivision or site-plan approval. "It grandfathered in hundreds of projects and sharply narrowed the scope of New Jersey wetlands law," says D. Douglas Hopkins, a lawyer with the Environmental Defense Fund. When state environmental officials began to act on the ruling, the outcry from environmentalists was loud. Finally in April Mr. Del Tufo issued a multipage "clarification" of his one-page ruling. Environmentalists say the decision effectively reversed the earlier ruling, but the details are still being worked out. "We have gone through such a brouhaha ... over what constitutes an ongoing project and what should be exempted," observes Marie Curtis, legislative representative for the New Jersey Environmental Lobby. Environmentalists say 40 projects were inappropriately exempted. Ms. Curtis says the state Department of Environmental Protection concurs in 23 cases and has partly rescinded go-ahead orders on three more projects. More may be challenged in court, says Mr. Lloyd.
Encouraging moves Mr. Hopkins of the Environmental Defense Fund says that several recent moves by the federal EPA to protect New Jersey wetlands are encouraging. Although a final decision has yet to be made, the EPA, he notes, a few weeks ago vetoed a permit granted by the US Army Corps of Engineers to the Hartz Mountain Development Corporation to complete a housing project in a wetlands area in the Hackensack Meadowlands. The EPA also initially vetoed another corps permit to a developer who planned to build office towers and a hotel on a platform over pilings in a central New Jersey marsh near Edison. The corps at first insisted it had no jurisdiction over such piling projects. After consultations with EPA officials, who termed the corps decision a loophole that would encourage a stampede, the corps agreed that such plans would be treated as regular wetland-fill proposals but that the Edison project should proceed. Environmentalists objected. "Our view is that the corps changed its interpretation - the law didn't change," says Ed Lloyd whose Rutgers law clinic has filed a legal challenge aimed at overturning the corps ruling. Again, no final EPA decision has been made. The corps and the EPA often work closely to keep vetoes to a minimum. The EPA has issued less than a dozen final vetoes of some 150,000 corps permits to fill wetlands issued over the last decade. Still, Mr. Hopkins praises the agency for the recent "hard decisions" its officials have made. "The EPA has shown some real backbone and a willingness to go to bat for wetlands," he says. Abby Fair says she, too, is heartened by recent EPA decisions but insists that environmentalists cannot yet afford to relax. "The price of good laws is constant vigilance; you have to keep watching," she says.