Wetlands Policy Is All Wet

26 June 2001 7:00 pm

It doesn't fly. Current mitigation policy fails to stem loss of wetlands, the panel says.

Letting builders destroy a wetland as long as they create an artificial marsh nearby isn't stemming the nation's loss of these ecosystems, a new report from the National Academy of Sciences concludes. The report calls for sweeping changes in wetland permit policies.

Once regarded as unhealthy swamps, wetlands are now recognized as key wildlife habitat and valuable resources for cleaning water and controlling floods. Under the Clean Water Act, a builder who wants to fill in a marsh has to get a permit from the U.S. Corps of Engineers or a state agency and restore or create a new wetland elsewhere to replace it. For over a decade, this so-called mitigation policy has been aimed at helping first the Bush, then the Clinton administrations meet a goal of "no net loss" of the 105 million or so acres of wetlands in the continental United States.

But the academy panel finds this approach isn't working. The Corps claims that 42,000 acres of wetlands have been created for 24,000 lost between 1993 and 2000. But evidence of abandoned projects and a lack of monitoring data casts doubt on this figure. And many of the recreated wetlands don't function in the same way as the original ones (Science, 17 April 1998, p. 371). For example, cattail-lined ponds are being built where they're "not naturally occurring," such as Oregon hillsides, says panel chair Joy Zedler, an ecologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. As a result, "the goal of no net loss is not being met," Zedler says.

The report recommends that wetlands that can't easily be replicated--like fens and bogs--be left alone. If other types must be harmed, data should be collected on a wetland before it's destroyed so it's known what permit holders are trying to reproduce. And regulators should look at the whole watershed to see if improving or creating a different, more distant wetland would do more good than building an identical one nearby. To make these things happen, permits must be more specific, more scientifically based, and monitored for longer than the usual 5 years or less, the report says.

It's now up to the George W. Bush Administration and possibly Congress to turn the report into action. But environmentalists who have criticized the mitigation program from the beginning are ecstatic. "This report changes the landscape on wetlands. We can't pretend they're working anymore," says Julie Sibbing, wetlands policy expert for the National Wildlife Federation.

Related sites

The full report, plus additional information
National Wetlands Inventory
Wetlands site at the Environmental Protection Agency

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