The Bog Lifts


After months of internal debate, the Bush administration has proposed new federal wetlands-protection policies. (See "The Swamp Thing," Apr.) If the proposals survive, property owners will breathe a bit easier. Among the proposals:

• A distinction between wetlands that perform environmental functions, which will be protected, and random puddles, which won't. Also, irrigation ditches, wet spots in corn fields, and other normal consequences of farming and ranching will no longer be considered "wetlands."

• A system to classify wetlands and set priorities, so that land with the greatest ecological value would merit the most aggressive protection.

• A simpler process for obtaining permits to alter wetlands. Currently, the Army Corps, the Soil Conservation Service, the EPA, and the Fish and Wildlife Service can deny land owners permission to alter wetlands on private property. The new policies make the Army Corps the final arbiter in any wetlands dispute.

• A more-restrictive definition of wetlands. The current definition allows land that is flooded for as little as seven consecutive days a year—the normal run-off period during a spring thaw—to be deemed wetlands; under the new policy, standing water has to be at the surface for 15 consecutive days and the soil must be saturated for 21 straight days.

John Hosemann, senior economist at the American Farm Bureau Federation, cautions that the proposals don't include schedules to compensate land owners when their property is declared wetlands and don't define "saturation" clearly. The Farm Bureau prefers legislation to protect wetlands instead of bureaucratic edicts. Still, Hosemann says the group "appreciates [the administration's] movement towards common sense" in wetlands policy.