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Wetlands Policy Soaking Up Criticism

Air Date: Week of

Despite a pledge from the Clinton Administration to clamp down on the loss of wetlands, critics are skeptical of a new permit policy proposed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The new guidelines are out as a proposal for public comment, and one man with his thumb down is Drew Caputo, a wetlands expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Mr. Caputo spoke with Steve Curwood.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Wetlands are some of the greatest powerhouses of nature. They provide critical breeding habitat for wildlife. They can filter huge amounts of pollutants out of water, and they protect against flooding by soaking up rain like giant sponges. That's a lesson many communities are learning the hard way with this year's heavy downpours. More than half of the wetlands in the US are already gone, disappeared under office parks, condominiums and other developments, and the rest are going fast. Two years ago, President Clinton vowed to protect wetlands from overdevelopment by directing the Army Corps of Engineers to redraft its Wetlands Permitting Guidelines. And now the new guidelines are out as a proposal for public comment. One man with his thumb down is Drew Caputo, a wetlands expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

CAPUTO: Among other things, these new wetlands permits would cover many thousands of acres, more wetlands than are covered under the current permit, Permit 26, which itself does a terrible job of protecting wetlands from all sorts of development.

CURWOOD: So you mean the larger the area the rules cover, the more opportunity for developing the wetlands? Is that what you're telling me?

CAPUTO: Yeah. What these rules do is they establish sort of a streamlined permitting process, which really isn't much of a hurdle at all for developers who want to fill a wetland. There's very little regulatory review over development activities that go through this sort of nationwide permitting process, and there's no public input or even public notice whatsoever as part of the process. It's a big loophole, basically, for developers. The end result is that if you're a developer who wants to build a Wal-Mart or a parking lot or a residential subdivision or an office park or an industrial facility in a wetland, these permits would make it easier for you to do so.

CURWOOD: Now, the Administration said it reviewed this whole wetlands permitting process and wanted to change it because they said that too much development was being allowed under the present regime. Now, why do you think they're actually loosening restrictions as you claim they are?

CAPUTO: Well, Steve, the honest answer is I'm having a hard time explaining why this proposal makes good sense from the Administration's perspective. Because back in 1996, when they decided to phase out Permit 26, they took and received political credit for doing that in order to do a better job of protecting wetlands. So it doesn't make sense to replace one permit which you admit is bad for the environment with new permits that are also bad for the environment. My only explanation is that the development interests are powerful ones, and that they've been putting pressure on the Army Corps of Engineers to at least keep the status quo, which is to allow them to have some broad permits that make it easy for them to fill wetlands.

CURWOOD: Well tell me, how much is being build on wetlands right now under the present rules?

CAPUTO: Well, the data's not very good. For Fiscal Year 1995, which is the last full year that data is available. The Corps admits to 34,000 development activities being permitted, and that those parking lots and shopping malls and things like that caused roughly 8,500 acres of wetlands lost. I personally think that's a pretty big underestimate, and it is an estimate.

CURWOOD: Eighty-five hundred acres? Doesn't sound like a big number at all.

CAPUTO: You need to keep in mind, first of all, that I think that is a low estimate. But even if you were to just take that number, you need to consider a couple of things. First, this wetlands filling that's going on under these permits isn't existing in a vacuum. It's on top of all of the wetlands filling which has happened since the first settlement of the country. In the lower 48 states in America we've lost more than half of our original wetlands. And in some parts of the country, in California for example, the amount of wetlands lost has gone over 90%, which means that each acre of remaining wetland is that much more precious. Now, one way to look at this is that almost 10 years ago, it's actually 10 years ago this year, George Bush made the famous national commitment of no net loss of wetlands. And 10 years after that national commitment, it turns out that we're still losing in America more than 100,000 acres of wetlands a year.

CURWOOD: Can you share with us where you get this 100,000 a year loss of wetlands figure from?

CAPUTO: Last fall the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, which is one of the expert Federal agencies which deals with wetlands, issued a comprehensive study that indicated that during a 10-year period between 1985 and 1995 the United States lost more than 115,000 acres of wetlands each year, every year. If you were to ask the Corps to explain where those 100,000 acres of wetlands that are being lost each year, what permits they came under, the Corps' numbers wouldn't match. They would come up with a much lower number of the permitting that they could account for. There's a lot of wetlands loss going on out there; some of it the Corps knows about. Other of it the Corps doesn't even know about. And part of the reason the Corps doesn't know about it is that it issues these broad permits, which anybody can use without necessarily even telling the Corps.

CURWOOD: Over the next 2 months the Administration is going to get a response from the public about these proposed guidelines. What do you think is going to happen in that process? Do you think that the public much cares about this, or the development interests, which would like to see an ease in restrictions, do you think they're going to prevail?

CAPUTO: Well, I think development interests are powerful. But the public is more powerful than any special interest in this country. And in my job I spend a fair amount of time talking to ordinary people about wetlands And particularly after you talk with them about how wetlands go about protecting water quality and wildlife habitat and protecting against floods, people are pretty clear that they want the government to do a good and a better job of protecting wetlands. The way I look at it is that what we're trying to do here is to strike a reasonable balance between the 2 interests that we have here. On the one side we need to do a good job of protecting the environment. On the other side we need to allow and facilitate responsible environmental development. My view is that there's no reason why we can't write wetlands permits that do a better job of protecting the environment while still making it possible for responsible development to go forward in a timely fashion.

CURWOOD: Drew Caputo is a wetlands expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Thanks for being with us today.

CAPUTO: Thank you, Steve.



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