THE administration's policy on wetlands continues a pattern of moderate steps to protect the environment while minimizing the impact on economic sectors. As with recent efforts on logging and ranching, the wetlands policy announced Tuesday is also an attempt to thread through an issue with years of political controversy behind it.
In general, the policy clarifies federal regulations for farmers and ensures quicker decisions from regulatory agencies. It exempts some 53 million acres of wetlands drained and converted to farm use before 1985. And through "mitigation banking" it allows farmers and developers to convert wetlands to economic use in exchange for other areas created or restored as wetlands.
But the Clinton order also closes loopholes that had allowed some wetlands to be dredged and filled, and it protects 1.7 million acres of Alaskan wetlands that would have been available for development under a ruling by the Bush administration. It also pledges to eventually increase national wetland acreage, moving beyond the "no net loss" pledge by President Bush.
Observers are generally lukewarm in response. "If you're a duck and you're up in Alaska, it's great. But once you migrate to Orange County or Louisiana or the Chesapeake Bay, you may have a harder time finding wetlands," said Wilderness Society spokesman Ben Beach.
National Wildlife Federation attorney Jan Goldman-Carter expressed concern that involving state and local officials more in regulatory decisions - as the Clinton administration seeks to do - would increase the influence of developers.
Farm-group officials welcome those parts of the Clinton plan that Louisiana Agriculture Commissioner Bob Odom says "will help reduce the regulatory nightmare farmers and ranchers have faced." American Farm Bureau Federation president Dean Kleckner is grateful that President Clinton apparently "recognizes that private-property rights are essential to the conservation of wetlands." But the farm group will still push for compensation to landowners impacted by federal regulation, which this plan does not inc lude.
Wetlands are important in improving water quality by serving as filters, recharging ground water, acting as a means of natural flood control, and providing habitat for thousands of plant and animal species, including many threatened by extinction. They account for some $40 billion in annual economic benefit, including recreation and commercial fisheries.
But over the past 200 years, the contiguous 48 states have lost nearly half of all wetlands to development and farming. Even with current protection measures, more than 200,000 acres of wetlands are lost each year.
This loss became particularly evident with the Midwestern floods. "Once the wetlands are destroyed, there is nothing to hold the floods back, and the water pours out into croplands and developed areas, such as our towns and cities," said Sen. John Chafee of Rhode Island, a ranking Republican on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works and co-author of a wetlands-protection bill being considered as part of the Clean Water Act reauthorization.
"It is important to note that three of the states that have been most severely affected by the floods had already seen significant losses of their historical wetlands areas," Mr. Chafee said in introducing his bill recently. "Illinois had lost 85 percent of [its] wetlands prior to the flood; Missouri 87 percent; and Iowa 90 percent."
The new wetlands policy closely tracks the bill of Chafee and Max Baucus (D) of Montana, who chairs the Senate environment committee. Other bills environmentalists favor would enact stiffer regulations to protect wetlands. And others would make it easier to farm or develop wetlands while providing compensation to owners restricted from economic activity on their land. (Seventy-five percent of wetlands in the "lower 48" is privately held.) While much of the Clinton policy can be put into effect by executi ve order, some provisions need congressional approval.
Meanwhile, one of the toughest decisions is yet to come: defining wetlands (bogs, swamps, ponds, fens, salt marshes, and prairie potholes) in terms of inches of standing water and number of days a year the water stands. A 1989 government manual that farmers and developers said represented a massive increase in regulation was followed in 1991 by a manual that environmentalists said would have sharply reduced wetlands across the nation.
This controversial issue has been handed to the National Academy of Sciences, which next month will hold its first session to define wetlands for regulation. The academy will finish its work next year.