The Army Corps of Engineers has removed 60 million acres of cropland from protection as wetlands, relinquishing authority to preserve it despite President Bush's pledge of "no net loss" of wetlands.

The decision affects nearly a third of the land designated as wetlands and was long sought by farmers who want the right to alter use of or sell off property to developers.

Maj. Gen. Patrick J. Kelly, the corps' director of civil works, said agricultural land which has been drained and farmed for generations only "minimally" meets the criteria for wetlands and that its removal from protection "should not be construed as a weakening or retreat" of the corps' committment to preserve the nation's dwindling wetlands.

But conservationists attacked the corps for essentially writing off tracts of land that help control floods and serve as wintering habitats for water fowl and shore birds.

"It's a step back from the goal of 'no net loss' of wetlands," said Jan Goldman-Carter of the National Wildlife Federation. "What you're talking about is selling out a farm to turn it into a K-mart or housing project. It's a bad sign."

The decision could exempt 300,000 to 400,000 acres of land from regulation in Maryland, and roughly 200,000 acres in Virginia. Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer praised the change yesterday and ordered state wetland rules rewritten to conform to it.

"I've seen land that made no sense to me at all called non-tidal {wetland}, standing out in the middle of a plowed field," Schaefer said.

Maryland is seeking permission from the corps to become the first state to regulate small parcels of wetlands and environmentalists had hoped that its regulations would be stricter than the federal ones.

"The cost is additional destruction of the bay watershed," said Ann Powers, vice president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "If people think we can clean up the bay without making tough choices, they're wrong."

Virginia officials had no immediate comment. But along Maryland's Eastern Shore and in Virginia's Tidewater counties, where the wetlands issue has delayed or cancelled dozens of public and private construction proposals, farmers and local officials expressed relief at the corps' announcement.

"From what I have seen, it's a very significant decision for us," said Arthur Collins, executive director of Virginia's Hampton Roads Planning District Commission. "We have high schools, roads, prisons -- a lot of things that are being held up."

Bush's campaign promise to support a policy of no net loss of wetlands was challenged repeatedly by developers, local governments, oil companies and others. In February, on orders of White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu, the administration watered down a key agreement between the corps and the Environmental Protection Agency that embraced the no-net-loss goal and set guidelines for achieving it.

Yesterday's decision affects wetlands converted to crops and drained before December 1985, when the federal "Swampbuster" program took effect, penalizing farmers who drain marshes, bogs and swamps for agricultural use.

The Clean Water Act has prohibited wetland development without a permit by the corps since 1977. But in practice, the corps did not extend its authority to drained cropland until 1989 when a new manual included farms in the definition.

Farmers protested, claiming that they would have to receive a permit to do so much as build a levee in a rice paddy. Members of Congress, especially from the Sunbelt, put pressure on the corps to change the ruling.

"It doesn't make much sense for that agency to regulate farmland that absolutely holds no water and doesn't support vegetation of a wetland," said Robert Nooter, assistant director of national affairs at the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Jack Chowning, a wetlands program staffer at the corps, said that removing protections from croplands will make the program "more predictable and manageable. For us to implement the program to the nth degree means we have to let some other important areas slide."

Corps officials in Maryland said the change would let them cut a backlog of dozens of permit applications.

The EPA, which has power to veto development permits approved by the corps, supported the decision as a way to strengthen protections of more valuable wetlands.

Staff writer Richard Tapscott contributed to this report.