Good News, Bad News for U.S. Wetlands

By Brian Hansen

WASHINGTON, DC, January 9, 2001 (ENS) - Two federal government reports released today show that there has been a dramatic slowdown in the last decade in the loss of environmentally sensitive wetlands, which provide a host of ecological, economic and social benefits for fish, wildlife, and people.

But the U.S. Supreme Court today seriously undermined the federal government's ability to protect wetlands, ruling that the Clean Water Act cannot be used to forestall the draining of isolated ponds and marshes that have no connection to "navigable waters."

wetland

This Florida wetland is home to wading birds, alligators, deer, and a host of small mammals (Photo by Steve Farrell, courtesy USFWS)

The two government wetlands reports were unveiled at a Washington news conference hosted jointly by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, both of whom played key roles in the environmental policy arena of the outgoing Clinton administration.

Babbitt said the two reports indicate that the government has made some "significant" progress in curtailing the loss of environmentally sensitive wetlands, which were once drained, dredged, filled and leveled at a rate of about half a million acres every year.

"We've come a long way in the last century, when the national policy was still 'wetlands equal swamps, equal evil to be eradicated,'" Babbitt said. "Today we know that wetlands are beneficial for both people and wildlife because they protect drinking water, habitat, beaches, recreation areas, and much more."

Babbitt

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, shown here on a mountain hike, says more needs to be done to protect wetlands (Photo courtesy the Interior Department)

The report issued by the agency under Babbitt's charge, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, concludes that the rate of wetlands loss in the United States has decreased to a level of about 58,500 acres a year - an 80 percent reduction compared to the previous decade. The drop represents the greatest overall decline in the rate of wetland loss since records have been compiled by the federal government.

"This is very good news," said Babbitt.

A similar reduction in the rate of wetlands loss was reported by the National Resources Conservation Service, a component of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The USDA's report found that wetlands losses on the nation's private lands have been scaled back even further, averaging only 32,600 acres annually between 1992 to 1997.

"We have slowed down the rapid loss of these valuable lands, and we are increasing the awareness of people [regarding] sustainable practices and quality of life issues," said Glickman.

Glickman

Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, shown here testifying before Congress, has launched a number of initiatives to conserve and restore wetlands (Photo courtesy USDA )

Both Glickman and Babbitt attributed the overall decline in wetlands losses to a bevy of government policies and programs that have been enacted over the course of the past decade under the Clinton administration. These programs aimed to conserve wetlands through a number of different means, such as conservation easements, idle till incentives, and the elimination of incentives for wetlands drainage.

Glickman said that the programs were successful because the USDA "tried to work as a partner" with farmers, ranchers and other private landowners who could have otherwise taken steps to drain and fill in wetlands on their properties.

before

The wetland on this farm has been drained and filled (Photo courtesy USFWS)

He praised the success of the USDA's Wetlands Reserve Program, a voluntary initiative that offers financial support to landowners for wetlands restoration projects. Approximately 212,000 acres were enrolled in the program in 1998 alone, Glickman said.

"These programs have been so successful that we have made conservation a centerpiece of our farm policy proposals that we have sent to Congress already," said Glickman, who predicted that such proposals will constitute the "heart and soul" of the USDA's next omnibus farm bill.

after

The same farm as pictured above, after the wetland has been recovered (Photo courtesy USFWS)

But both cabinet secretaries were quick to acknowledge that they have not yet achieved the federal government's stated goal of no net annual loss of wetlands habitat.

"There's more to be done," said Babbitt.

Asked if the incoming Bush administration can be counted on to complete the remaining wetlands conservation and recovery work, Babbitt quipped, "When the next administration puts in an urgent call for my advice on this matter, I will certainly suggest that there is much to be done."

As presidential appointees of the outgoing Clinton administration, Babbitt, Glickman and many other federal officials will relinquish their posts when President-elect George W. Bush is sworn into office a week from Saturday. Conservation groups have been sharply critical of Bush, fearing that he will enact policies disastrous for the nation's environment.

Babbitt has faced those kinds of criticisms as well, but today he was uncompromising in his support of a strong wetlands conservation and recovery initiative. Asked by reporters how he would describe the importance of wetlands to city dwellers not familiar with environmental matters, Babbitt paused before saying, "It's all connected."

"Every forest, every field, every river, every stream, every park ... is part of a continuous experience for American people," Babbitt said.

Glickman, asked the same question, said that wetlands "filter the crud out" so that it does not get into water sources used for drinking, cooking and bathing.

geese

This Deleware wetland supports a large population of snow geese (Photo by Stefan Dobert, courtesy USFWS)

Often referred to as "nature's sponges," wetlands help to protect water quality by filtering out pollutants, providing natural flood control by absorbing excess water, and buffering coastal areas from erosion. They support diverse populations of fish, wildlife and plants, and provide habitat for more than 40 percent of the nation's endangered and threatened species.

Wetlands function as nurseries for many saltwater and freshwater fishes and shellfish of commercial importance, and they provide recreation and wildlife opportunities for millions of people.

But just hours before Babbitt and Glickman appeared at the Interior Department to announce the progress that has been made towards stemming the destruction of the nation's wetlands, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision that will likely stall or even reverse that trend.

The high court, in a 5-4 decision, said that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could not prevent the development of a wetland on the grounds that it would violate the federal Clean Water Act, one of the principal laws used in the protection and recovery of wetlands.

The court's majority said that the Corps of Engineers went too far when it prohibited a group of 23 local governments from building a regional garbage dump on a tract of swampy land near Chicago, Illinois.

The Corps had rejected the proposed dump on the basis of the Clean Water Act, which gives the agency the right to regulate pollution discharged into "the waters of the United States." The Corps maintained that the pollution from the landfill would have detrimental impacts of the ducks, geese and other protected waterfowl that utilize the boggy site during their biannual migrations.

The high court today rejected that argument, ruling that the Corps cannot prevent the pollution of isolated, seasonal bodies water simply because they are used by migratory birds. The court ruled that the Clean Water Act gives the government only the authority to regulate the use of "navigable waters," and that the types of isolated ponds at issue in the Illinois case were not to be encompassed in that definition.

"Permitting the [government] to claim federal jurisdiction over ponds and mudflats would ... result in a significant impingement of the states' traditional and primary power over land and water use," wrote Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

Rehnquist was joined in his majority opinion by Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Anthony Kennedy and Sandra Day O'Connor.

Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the minority, declared, "Today the Court takes an unfortunate step that needlessly weakens our principal safeguard against toxic water."

Stevens was joined in his dissent by Justices David Souter, Stephen Breyer, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Babbitt, asked about the ruling, said, "There's no question that the Supreme Court decision is a serious setback for the cause of wetlands protections and restoration." Babbitt said it was "impossible" to quantify the damage that could result from the decision.

Glickman expressed a similar view, saying that the ruling "could be a very serious problem" for the wetlands conservation and recovery initiative.

Babbitt went further, calling on Congress "consider whether there should be amendments to the Clean Water Act."

Environmental groups, already fearing the worst from the incoming Bush administration, reacted with dismay to the high court's ruling.

"The decision today puts in jeopardy perhaps a fifth of the water bodies in the United States, ranging from portions of the [Florida] Everglades to the country's most important breeding grounds for ducks," said Tim Searchinger, a senior attorney with Environmental Defense, a national advocacy group.

Searchinger added that the ruling gives the court a "broad, vague new doctrine to strike down environmental laws it doesn't like." The court's action today, he said, "opened the door" to the challenging of many other environmental laws.

The high court's ruling was hailed by the National Association of Homebuilders (NAHB), which filed a friend of the court brief on behalf of the Illinois communities that were denied permission to construct the landfill on the Illinois wetland. The NAHB blasted the so-called "migratory bird test" that the Corps had used to block the landfill, calling it a "nightmarish regulatory rationale that has haunted builders for years."

The Supreme Court's ruling can be viewed online at: http://www.supremecourtus.gov/opinions/00pdf/99-1178.pdf

The Interior Department's wetlands report is available at: http://wetlands.fws.gov/bha/SandT/SandTReport.html

The USDA's report is online at: http://www.nhq.nrcs.usda.gov/NRI