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Wetlands in the Corn Belt, too


Coles County, Ill. -- FOR A few weeks now I've been walking my rural acres deep in the Corn Belt, some 200 miles from Chicago, thinking about President Bush. I've been wishing that he would join me here, and bring along his boots.

I'd take him, straight away, past my rows of corn, across my tall-grass meadow and down a steep, wooded hillside. Here, along the maple-shaded banks of the Hogs Branch, we'd amble and talk -- about mud and mallards, kidneys and ecology.

I began thinking about all this when some of the president's men released new rules concerning the protection of our nation's marshes, bogs and other wetlands. The proposed rules redefine the term "wetlands" so that much that was protected in the Midwest, along the Chesapeake Bay and elsewhere -- some 10 million acres, perhaps much more -- no longer will be. Where limits once existed and permits were required, landowners will now be free to do as they wish.

No sooner were these new rules out than the political mud began to fly. The National Wildlife Federation and others pointed out that the campaigning candidate promised to preserve existing wetlands, "no matter how small." The president is not keeping his word, they say. Many farm groups and commercial developers seem delighted. Now more land can be made safe for soybeans and corn or converted into condos and convenience stores.

I know a bit about wetlands, or at least about one particular wetland. My two bottom fields are usually damp and regularly flooded. These fields are the kidneys of my 103 acres -- absorbing floodwaters, filtering out farm chemicals and collecting sediment. They serve as fertile breeding grounds for frogs, salamanders, muskrats and other organisms that enrich a complex food chain.

Marshes of the Midwest offer nesting grounds for 80 percent of North America's ducks. When a wetland is filled, the ecological consequences spread far and wide, disregarding such flimsy things as property lines and political boundaries. As I watch a family of mallards, I'm not happy when I hear the president's men talk about "useless" prairie potholes.

Yes, I'd rather like to tell the president what I think as we slog along Hogs Branch, which feeds into the Embarras River and thence on to the Ohio and Mississippi. And what I think is that the filling and draining of wetlands is a selfish, shortsighted act. It is an act that makes sense only when we perceive no connections between one acre and the next, when we assume that we can transform one acre with no effect on our human and natural neighbors. It is an act that makes sense only if my calculation of profit foolishly ignores the rippling, lasting harm that I would inevitably cause.

Forty miles from this creek, at the university where I teach law, whole blocks rest on drained prairie meadows, as does much surrounding farm land. Without question, the power shovel and drainage tile have made land more useful for humans, and the economic benefits have been many.

But what is good in moderation need not be good in the extreme. Here, in Illinois, 85 percent of our wetlands have vanished since settlement began. Iowa has lost 89 percent and Maryland 73. We are cutting out our kidneys to enlarge our stomachs.

When I protect my wetland I embrace my membership in a natural community. I proclaim that, as property owner, I have obligations that go along with my rights. My principal obligation, I sense, is to use my land in ways that enhance ecological #F balances.

Protection of our land will come, in all likelihood, only when more people sense the need for ecological harmony and when they come to love the land -- mud, cattails, prairie potholes and all. Maybe this is what the president needs -- not a lecture on campaign honesty, but a chance to take off his boots, to feel the mud between his toes and the minnows against his ankles, to sense the beauty and richness our wetlands have to offer.

If he can find his way down to Hogs Branch and will bare his feet, I'll lead the way.

Eric T. Freyfogle is a professor of law, specializing in natural resources issues, at the University of Illinois.

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