The Bush administration yesterday issued new guidelines to try to halt the massive loss of the nation's wetlands to roads, housing and commercial development and to quell criticism that previous proposals were far too lenient on developers.
Officials of the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said the multiyear strategy and a new guidance letter that specifies the steps developers may take to replace or restore destroyed wetlands would strengthen the government's efforts to hold the line against future net losses of marshes, swamps and bogs.
The plan and regulations are designed to enhance technical capabilities for wetland restoration and protection, as well as to clarify policies to ensure "ecologically sound, predictable and enforceable" wetlands restoration within the context of protecting larger watersheds, according to officials.
The Army Corps of Engineers triggered an outcry from other federal agencies, lawmakers and environmental groups in October 2001 when it released a draft of the guidance letter that appeared to abandon an ambitious goal of "no net loss" of wetlands that was set by President George H.W. Bush in 1989.
The EPA and four other agencies have worked with the corps to revise the letter and so defuse the controversy, and to bring the nation's approach to wetlands mitigation more in line with recommendations the National Academy of Sciences made last year.
"These actions affirm this administration's commitment to the goal of no net loss of America's wetlands and its support for protecting our nation's watersheds," EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman said in a statement.
The new guidelines stress that federal agencies with oversight should focus more on the ecological quality of new wetlands being created as replacements for those destroyed by developers, instead of always on achieving acre-for-acre replacement.
"Focusing on the replacement of the functions provided by a wetland, rather than only calculation of acreage impacted or restored, will in most cases provide a more accurate and effective way to achieve the environmental performance objectives of the no-net-loss policy," according to the final regulatory guidance letter issued by the corps.
The Association of State Wetland Managers hailed the new guidelines as a big improvement over previous proposals, while the National Association of Home Builders, facing a new set of regulations for building on wetlands, questioned the need for the changes.
Julie Sibbing, a wetlands expert for the National Wildlife Federation, described the new guidelines as "a marginal improvement over last year's" but warned that they would do little to stem the loss of valuable wetlands.
"It seems to me they just haven't gotten the message yet that 80 percent of these wetlands restoration efforts are failures," she said. "They're just relying on the faith-based approach that this will all work out, when we've seen that it doesn't."
Tens of thousands of acres of wetlands across the country are lost to development each year. Wetlands -- including streams, bogs and seasonally flooded farmland -- provide important habitat for wildlife as well as flood protection and water purification for people.
The Clean Water Act prohibits developers, home builders and others from filling in wetlands unless the Corps of Engineers grants a permit. In those cases, the permit holder must either restore the wetlands or create a replacement to compensate for damage done.
Under the new regulations and a 17-point National Wetlands Mitigation Action Plan developed by the administration, the underlying needs of a watershed will be given more emphasis than the conventional focus on any net loss of acreage, according to EPA spokesman Joe Martyak.
Mark Sudol, chief of the corps' regulatory branch, said this new, broader approach to assessing developers' impact on wetlands would likely result in the government demanding more replacement land, not less, in coming years, as officials learn more about the wetlands' ecological value. In 2002, the corps generally required developers to provide more than two acres of replacement wetlands for every acre destroyed.
"The overall net effect of the use of functional assessment techniques [instead of simple acreage replacement] will result in a net gain in wetlands," Sudol predicted.