Environmentalists warn that new federal wetlands guidelines being weighed by the Bush administration could eliminate development restrictions on millions of acres of nontidal wetlands, including up to one-fourth of the inland marshy areas on Maryland's Eastern Shore.
With pressure growing in Congress to ease federal wetlands protections, environmentalists say they fear the administration is moving to scale back regulation of the more controversial wetlands, which lack waterfowl, standing water and other obvious marshland features.
Although not always wet, non-tidal wetlands filter out pollutants that could drain into streams and the Chesapeake Bay. They also sustain wildlife and help control floods.
"The political pressure is there to delete these areas now and to delete them before we know what we are deleting," charged Linda Winter, Chesapeake Bay coordinator for the Izaak Walton League.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials say they are simply fine tuning federal wetlands identification procedures adopted two years ago. They stress that no final decisions have been made.
An interagency committee that includes federal wetlands scientists is scheduled to brief top officials of the EPA, the Army Corps of Engineers, Fish and Wildlife Service and the Agriculture Department next week on the proposed changes.
"The revisions are fairly technical and programmatic and won't really change the definition of [wetlands]," says Sean McElheny, an EPA spokesman.
But the National Wildlife Federation said revisions reportedly being pushed by White House staff are "politically motivated and scientifically flawed."
At least one EPA scientist apparently agrees.
William S. Sipple, EPA's chief wetlands ecologist, said he resigned from a panel reviewing federal wetlands law about six weeks ago because he believed that changes proposed by the administration went beyond technical refinements to drastically reduce the scope of what would be considered wetlands.
Sipple estimated that changes proposed around the time he quit would have affected "millions" of acres.
"I don't think you should mix policy with science," he said. "If somebody wants to change policy, they should do it through the rulemaking process."
One proposed change would recognize only "the wettest of the wetlands," he said, while excluding bogs and other marshy areas where water saturates the soil but does not flood the surface.
Other EPA officials suggest that the proposed changes have been toned down since Sipple quit the review panel. Internal EPA and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service memos obtained by The Evening Sun, however, indicate that changes still being considered would narrow the conditions under which wetlands could be identified if they were not flooded at some time during the year.
Tom Filip, assistant regulatory chief in the Corps of Engineers Baltimore District office, predicted there would be a "rollback" in federal wetlands regulation if all the proposed revisions are approved.
Filip said up to 250,000 acres on the Eastern Shore and in Southern Maryland would no longer be considered non-tidal wetlands under revisions he was asked to study by the Corps of Engineers.
The changes could exclude 175,000 acres on the Shore alone, Filip said, where the percentage of land considered potentially wetlands would drop from 40 percent to about 30 percent.
Most of the areas in Maryland that could be deregulated have only been treated as wetlands since 1989, when officials said the state's inventory of non-tidal wetlands had dwindled to 275,000 acres.
The General Assembly enacted a non-tidal wetlands protection law that year, just as the federal environmental agencies agreed on new guidelines for identifying them that vastly expanded the acreage potentially affected -- to anywhere from 600,000 acres to more than 1 million acres.
The guidelines became a lightning rod nationally for protests from farmers, builders, homeowners and the oil and gas industry, who complained that they restrict development of vast acreages not previously treated as wetlands, particularly in low-lying areas like Alaska, Louisiana and the Shore.
The Bush administration already has scaled back wetlands regulations some in response. The Corps of Engineers last fall dropped its requirement for permits to develop farmed wetlands, a move that affected 300,000 to 400,000 acres in Maryland alone.
But EPA Administrator William K. Reilly has publicly pledged still more reforms this spring.
"I do not intend to include 60 percent of North Carolina or 40 percent of Maryland's Eastern Shore as wetlands," he told the House Public Works Committee last week, according to Congressional Quarterly.
Environmentalists said they favor some fine tuning of federal wetlands guidelines but object to changing scientific criteria to tone down the controversy. And they are critical of Reilly, a former environmentalist who had pushed for the "no net loss" wetlands policy adopted by Bush.
Several bills have been introduced in Congress to tighten the definition of wetlands and classify them by their environmental and economic value. Reilly has indicated he favors such an approach, suggesting there needs to be a "duck test" of which wetlands are more deserving of protection.
"There are many extremely important bogs and wetlands that ducks don't land in," countered Winter of the Izaak Walton League. "You don't need to have surface water to have wetlands that are extremely important to wildlife and water quality."
But Margaret Ann Reigle, chairman of Maryland's 6,000-member Fairness to Landowners Committee, welcomed any changes that limit federal regulations to the more obviously wet lands.
"It couldn't be soon enough as far as we're concerned," said Reigle, a Dorchester County resident whose committee has complained that the current federal wetlands guidelines are regulatory overkill.
State officials have yet to take a position on the legislation or on the proposed guideline changes.
Catherine P. Stevenson, Maryland's water resources director, said that while state officials want to see the federal wetlands manual "tightened up," they do not want to see major changes in how wetlands are defined.