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Wetlands Left High and Dry in Bush Plan

January 10, 2003|Osha Gray Davidson | Osha Gray Davidson is author of "Fire in the Turtle House: The Green Turtle and the Fate of the Ocean" (2002, PublicAffairs).

Just three months after proclaiming this "the year of clean water," the Bush administration is proposing new regulations that are the most serious threat to the Clean Water Act since it was passed by Congress 30 years ago.

Goodbye, Year of Clean Water. Hello, Years of Living Dangerously.

At issue is whether the government will protect wetlands or abandon many of them to the not-so-tender mercies of developers.

The stakes are tremendously high. Wetlands are rain forests' less glamorous cousins: the bogs, marshes, meadows and swamps that filter out pollutants, provide natural flood control and are home to hundreds of species of plants and animals -- many of them already in danger of extinction.

To step or paddle into a wetland is to travel back in time. In many parts of the country, wetlands are the last magnificent vestiges of wild America. There you can still find creatures like the black-crowned night heron and the silvery salamander. You can thrill to the sight of delicate flowers like the white lady's slipper. If you're lucky you might even catch a glimpse of a mink.

All of these creatures and countless others were common just 100 years ago. But with 50% of our nation's wetlands already paved over or plowed under, relatively few of the animals survive. Today you have to go to great lengths to find them. With the new regulations in place, the odds that your children or grandchildren will be able to see them at all 50 years from now are slim.

The new rules were crafted to allow developers to get their hands on a class of wetland previously denied them, so-called "isolated wetlands." They're isolated only in the sense that you can't travel between them in a boat.

Millions of migratory birds, however, have no trouble getting from one isolated wetland to another as they head north or south each year.

Under the new rules, isolated wetlands, which have been protected under the Clean Water Act since 1972, will no longer be afforded federal safeguards. The problem that the Bush administration is so assiduously ignoring is that nearly one-third of the nation's remaining wetlands fall under the heading of "isolated."

The president's father implemented a policy in 1989 promising no net loss of the nation's remaining wetlands. Bush the younger has sworn allegiance to his father's policy. But he's found a nifty way around this promise -- redefining a third of America's wetlands out of existence. Figuratively, of course. Developers can take it from there.

Environmental organizations are predictably appalled that the government would allow the destruction of these important ecosystems. But Bush, who would be likely to throw open Yosemite to oil exploration if a drop of sweet crude were found beneath Half Dome, doesn't court environmentalists.

The administration, however, may face opposition from an unexpected quarter: hunters, who will be outraged over a plan to remove federal protection from a high percentage of the breeding grounds for North American waterfowl.

The combined forces of environmentalists and hunters probably won't be enough to get the Bush administration to reconsider its disastrous course. The groups lack the deep pockets of those who look at our last remaining wetlands and see not our stunning ecological heritage but a landscape of investment opportunities -- strip malls, tract homes and expanded mining and logging operations.

I'm planning on visiting some favorite wetlands soon. I want to say goodbye while there's time.

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