JUST as he took office in 1989, President Bush got caught on an environmental escalator over protecting wetlands.He is now trying to step off, in the name of balancing the interests of development and farmers against those of the environment. Mr. Bush's campaign pledge in 1988 was as clear as his stand against taxes: "No net loss of wetlands." But just 10 days before he took office, wetlands were redefined by scientists at federal agencies - nearly doubling the acreage protected as wetlands. Last week, in a fast-selling issue of the Federal Register, the Bush administration proposed a new approach, including more narrow rules defining a wetland. The rules are an opening round in the next major environmental battle here, renewal of the Clean Water Act of 1972. Environmentalists view the new Bush wetlands policy with deepening disappointment at the weight the White House gives to economic interests over environmental concerns. "Over the past two years, [the White House] has provided a lot of mixed signals at best," says William Roberts, legislative director of the Environmental Defense Fund. "Increasingly, it has become clear that there's a trend away from environmental protection."
Market mechanisms The White House has made some innovative use of market mechanisms as a way of balancing economic and environmental values, such as creating a market for acid-rain pollution credits. The proposed wetlands policy includes a plan for the banking and trading of credits for man-made wetland as compensation for developing natural wetlands. Mr. Roberts says, however, that environmental initiatives have not been numerous or extensive enough to leave a strong market imprint on environmental protection. One advocate of market-based environmental protections, Stephen Lovejoy, an agricultural economist at Purdue University, notes from the Bush administration "less what I would call a move to market solutions and more a move away from regulation."
What wetlands do The swamps, tidal marshes, bogs, and other sometimes water-logged ground called wetlands act as natural settling ponds and filters to purify water. They also provide flood control, nurseries for fisheries, and habitats for rare birds, plants, and animals. More than a third of American wetlands are in Alaska, where losses have been relatively slight. But in the lower 48 states, a recent historical inventory by the US Fish and Wildlife Service found that 53 percent of wetlands have been lost since the 1780s, leaving just over 100 million acres. Estimates of the annual loss of wetlands now run from 290,000 acres to 455,000 acres. The Bush administration argues that while their proposed policy excludes some of the drier acreage now called wetlands from protection, it builds in stronger protection for the wetter wetlands with higher environmental value. One loose estimate, used inside and outside government, is that the proposed redefining of a wetland will drop about 30 million acres from protection. Michael Deland, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, says that the number of acres protected under the new proposed definition will still be far more than were protected when Bush made his no-net-loss pledge during the campaign. Further, he notes that current federal regulation limits only the filling of wetlands. New legislation proposed by the White House would extend those regulations to cover draining and dredging of wetlands, which federal officials believe destroys an even greater share of wetlands each year. "In the aggregate, [the president's new proposals] should result in protecting more wetlands, in particular more high-value wetlands," says Mr. Deland. The debate over defining wetlands is basically over where on the slope, as the ground grows higher and drier, the wetland ends. In flat country, the difference can mean vast acreage. Most wetland scientists are more comfortable with the existing definition than with the White House proposals. They look for the presence of the mottled color of saturated soils and plants adapted to standing in water for long periods.
The 'splash test' Farmers and developers, on the other hand, look for the presence of water and believe a wetland should pass the "splash test." Much of the protected acreage now seems to defy a common-sense definition of wetland. The 1989 definition "took the regulation into uplands where there was no water," says Mike Luzier, director of environmental regulation for the National Association of Home Builders. The splash test is not taken seriously by biologists or wetlands- soils scientists. Mark Brinson, president of the Society of Wetland Scientists and a biologist at East Carolina University, notes that in the dry West, many wetlands already fail to officially qualify for protection, even though they perform the useful functions of wetlands. Some Western wetland forests have roots soaking in the water table, but water never saturates the surface at all, notes Wayne Ferren Jr., a biology professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara. The Clean Water Act failed to reach its goal that navigable American rivers and streams would be fishable and swimmable by 1985, says Dr. Brinson. To narrow the definition of wetlands now, he said, "will be a setback for water quality." The Bush administration has proposed raising federal spending for wetlands research and land acquisition. Some of these increases have taken place. "There's not going to be a net loss of wetlands," Bush told Maine reporters on Friday. "There's some redefinition. But go talk to some farmers.... Go talk to some guys that maybe had a plot of land for years, and suddenly there's a definition by some bureaucrat in Washington that makes it impossible to have any reasonable control over your own property."