State and federal officials assured Marylanders this week that farmers can continue to farm and builders can continue to build, despite regulations intended to save the state's vanishing non-tidal wetlands.
Officials said at a news conference Monday at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center that they want to dispel a misconception that federal rules already in place and a state law that will take effect next year will end construction and farming in non-tidal wetlands.
"The law only means you have to get a permit," said LaJuana Wilcher, an assistant administrator of the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
Since the federal program took effect in 1977, the EPA has rejected only 3 percent of the applications to build or farm in non-tidal wetlands, Wilcher said.
Her comments came at a briefing on non-tidal wetlands organized by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.). The senator said she brought together officials of the EPA and the state Department of Natural Resources because of her concern about confusion among owners of property that includes non-tidal wetlands.
"They don't know where to go for information," she said.
Environmentalists say wetlands are vitally important because they filter sediment and pollutants from rainwater that would otherwise pollute rivers and the Chesapeake Bay and seep into underground water supplies.
Scientists do not have an easy definition of what constitutes non-tidal wetlands.
Mikulski said state and federal regulators are nearing agreement on how to share responsibility for regulation of Maryland's non-tidal wetlands.
Wilcher said her goal is "to develop a simplified permit process" so that Marylanders will not have to go to state and federal governments to get permits. In most cases property owners will be able to get a permit from the state and will not have to go to the federal government as well, she said.
State Sen. Bernard C. Fowler (D-St. Mary's/Calvert) said there is a great deal of anger and confusion among farmers in his district about control over wetlands.
"The farmers are just livid," he said.
Fowler said he thinks some of the concern is due to misinformation about the law. "I don't think it's as catastrophic as it appears."
Wilcher said farmers who have been cultivating fields can continue to do so without applying for a permit. A permit is required only when there is a change in use, she said.
Areas such as swamps and bogs that have standing water much of the year are clearly wetlands. Other areas that are often or usually dry also can be legally classified as wetlands if they have the right kind of soil and plant life.
"Through the controversy, I've learned how important a wetland is," Mikulski said.