Interior Secretary James G. Watt yesterday unveiled his draft of a bill to protect the nation's dwindling wetland acreage, including provisions that would sharply restrict the conversion of such land to agricultural uses, double the price of duck-hunting stamps and impose a "user's fee" on bird watchers.
The draft bill was presented to members of Protect Our Wetlands and Duck Resources, a private-sector committee Watt appointed last year. Acknowledging that "there will be opposition to this," he told the group, "I'll deliver the administration if you folks will deliver Congress."
But if the reaction of Watt's panel was any indication, the draft legislation is in for some major revision or some very tough sledding. "Mr. Secretary, I'll be as direct with you as you have been with us," said North Dakota Gov. Allen I. Olson, a member of the group. "If this ever saw the light of day in North Dakota, we'd both be boiled in oil."
The proposal to raise the price of a federal migratory bird hunting stamp from $7.50 to $15 as a way of increasing revenues for wetland acquisition also was greeted with some skepticism. "I don't think we should fool ourselves . . . . We're going to have to sugar coat this pill," said a member from a hunting publication.
About the only Watt proposal to pass without comment was the idea of imposing an entry fee on visitors to national wildlife refuges, similar to the visitors' permit required at some national parks. No member of the group, composed mainly of state officials, corporate executives and representatives of hunting organizations, spoke against it.
The POWDR group was appointed to explore ways of stemming the loss of wetlands, which are important as breeding and wintering grounds for waterfowl and provide natural flood and erosion control.
Interior Department studies indicate that the nation has already lost more than half of its original wetland acreage, most of it to agricultural development, and is continuing to lose wetlands at the rate of 715 square miles every year.
But the strongest opposition to the secretary's proposals yesterday came from Olson, whose agricultural state is the nation's leading waterfowl breeding area. Of primary concern to Olson is a draft provision that Watt said was intended to keep federal dollars, with some exceptions, from being used to subsidize the destruction of wetlands.
Oil exploration and drilling, some dredge-and-fill operations, road construction and federal water development projects still would be permitted, but the land could not be converted to farmland--at least not with any federal grants, loans or guarantees.
Although Watt assured Olson that the bill had been drafted to deal with his concerns, Olson appeared unconvinced. "We want to be cooperative," he said, "but my people are very concerned about this. My congressional delegation would have serious difficulties with it."
Watt clearly had hoped to get a stamp of approval on his bill. "I'm eager to get it called something other than Jim Watt's bill," he said. But it appears that the panel's approval, if it comes at all, will have to wait until its next meeting in March.
Yesterday's meeting was well attended by environmental groups and other "outsiders," as Watt described them in his opening remarks. The POWDR group has come under fire from some environmentalists, who complained that it was functioning as an advisory group to Watt even though it was not chartered by the government and that its meetings were not open to the public.
Interior officials have insisted that both of the panel's previous meetings were open.
Environmentalists who monitored yesterday's meeting said the draft bill was "conceptually good," although "much of the value is lost because of the exceptions."
They also worried that current wetland protections under the Clean Water Act might be superseded by the bill and that thousands of acres of wetlands might be lost as developers hurried to convert them before the government inventoried lands that would come under the law.