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U.S. says wetlands healthier, fueling debate

Bush administration officials cast a new report as evidence that the nation has turned a corner on years of wetlands losses, but state wetland managers and advocacy groups called the report misleading.
/ Source: The Associated Press

More people building ponds for golf courses and subdivisions or to retain stormwater and wastewater helped create the nation’s first net gain in wetlands in a half-century of government record-keeping.

About 5 percent of the contiguous United States, or almost 108 million acres, was covered with wetlands as of 2004, the Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service reported Thursday. It found a net gain of 191,800 acres of wetlands since the last report in 1997.

Bush administration officials cast the report as evidence that the nation has turned a corner on years of wetlands losses. State wetland managers and advocacy groups for hunting, recreation and environmental causes all called the report misleading.

The Fish and Wildlife Service reported a gain of 715,300 acres of shallow-water wetlands — mainly artificial varieties of ponds — which offset a continued loss of 523,500 acres of marshes, swamps, and other more traditional and natural wetlands that are the so-called nurseries of life.

Swamps, marshes, fens, tidal marshes, peatlands and other water-laden ecosystems filter pollutants and sediments, control flooding and protect against coastal erosion. They also provide clean water and homes for fish, shellfish and wildlife, and stopping points for migratory birds.

The report measures strictly the acreage, not their quality, and was completed before hurricanes Katrina and Rita ate up the Gulf Coast. Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns cast the report as a partial fulfillment of President Bush’s 2004 Earth Day pledge to move beyond his father’s “no net loss” policy on wetlands.

Bush promised then to restore or protect as much as 3 million acres of wetlands over the next five years.

“A significant amount of the increase has been in ponds,” Norton said. “People like having ponds as an amenity. ... Even ponds that are not a high quality of wetlands are better than not having wetlands.”

Norton said that while the overall state of the nation’s wetlands remains “precarious,” the report suggests that Bush administration restoration efforts are working. Johanns lauded farmers, ranchers and others voluntarily doing federally funded private conservation work.

Critics quick to respond
Others saw a different picture.

“Unfortunately, the report’s seemingly good conclusion that the nation has achieved ’no net loss of wetlands’ is misleading,” said Jeanne Christie, executive director of the Association of State Wetland Managers Inc.

“The ’no net loss of wetlands’ is largely due to the proliferation of ponds, lakes and other ’deepwater habitats,’ as the report points out,” she said. “These ponds include ornamental lakes for residential developments, stormwater retention ponds, wastewater treatment lagoons, aquaculture ponds and golf course water hazards.”

Don Young, executive vice president of Ducks Unlimited, said the report “diminishes the significance” of the damage to natural wetlands that is causing “fewer waterfowl, diminished wildlife in general, less flood protection, less seafood and lower water quality.”

The lower 48 states had an estimated 220 million acres of wetlands and streams in pre-colonial times, but 115 million acres of them had been destroyed by 1997.

The estimates are based on a statistical sampling of 4,700 plots of land, each four square miles in size, that have been studied since 1954.

On Monday, the Army Corps of Engineers and Environmental Protection Agency proposed new regulations promoting companies that specialize in creating wetlands. The proposal is intended to encourage developers who destroy wetlands or streams and are required to replace them to pay other businesses — about 300 “mitigation bankers” — to do the work.

Congressional investigators have found that the Corps of Engineers could not ensure the 40,000 acres of wetlands restoration work required each year since 1983 is actually taking place.