The Army Corps of Engineers yesterday published proposals it said would "redefine and clarify" a controversial regulatory program designed to protect the nation's receding wetland acreage.

Staffers of the National Wildlife Federation, however, said the proposals could weaken government controls and cut back public participation in development decisions. They say they fear that wetland areas from the Dakotas to the Florida Everglades, which are important breeding grounds for waterfowl and shellfish, could lose some existing protections under the proposals.

"We have absolutely no intent of changing the jurisdiction of the program through these regulations," said Robert K. Dawson, deputy assistant secretary of the Army for civil works. "We're trying to make the program work."

But Tom Tomasello of the federation argued that the proposal redefines wetlands in a way that would remove protections from some areas now covered. He also suggested that changes in the provisions for issuing permits for development relieve the corps of responsibility it is required by law to take.

Dawson said he hoped critics "will be specific and not speculative" when they comment on the proposal.

Federal law requires that a decision to drain or fill wetlands for development or agricultural purposes must be reviewed at several levels to ensure maximum protection of the area.

This process has been seen as cumbersome and duplicative by some developers, states and federal agencies and was targeted for review by Vice President Bush's Task Force on Regulatory Relief.