Give Nature a Chance:

The Case for Federal Wetlands Protection
by U.S. Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest (R-1)

"Let us give nature a chance, she knows her business better than we do." This is as true today as it was when written in 1580 by Michel de Montaigne. As we develop policy to protect drinking water quality and the Chesapeake Bay, we should take heed of this historical wisdom.

For centuries we as a nation have sought to manage the business of nature without regard to nature's own mechanics. We considered wetlands unfarmable, mosquito-infested obstacles to be drained and filled. But as our understanding of science and nature evolved, we began to understand better the "business of nature" and the important role of wetlands in our environment, our economy and our own health.

Wetlands provide numerous economic benefits to communities and are now valued in many areas for their positive effect on property values. A key function is flood control, and they also can stabilize shorelines and help prevent erosion.

Another valuable function is to maintain and restore water quality. Wetlands serve as a natural filtration system for rainwater. As water passes through the marshy bogs and swamps to recharge underground aquifers, pollutants are left behind. Wetlands also act as incubators for all kinds of wildlife.

The health of the Chesapeake Bay is inextricably linked to wetlands, and almost every facet of our economy is dependent upon the health of the Chesapeake Bay. Within the Bay watershed, recreational and commercial fishing and migratory bird hunting each year contribute hundreds of millions of dollars. More than $100 million worth of seafood is removed from Chesapeake waters annually.

During the last two decades a serious effort has been made to protect the Bay in Maryland. Unfortunately, our best efforts have taken us only so far.

Each of the six states in the Bay's 64,000 square-mile watershed states has seen dramatic losses in wetlands over the years, but the good news is that those numbers are declining. Still, nationally, we are losing about 100,000 acres of wetlands each year.

We've also been losing the battle over wetlands in the courts. Our entire national policy rests with a few paragraphs in the 1972 Clean Water Act. It authorizes the federal government to regulate dredge and fill activities in waters of the United States. The Army Corps of Engineers has broadly interpreted that language, leaving the courts to decide what Congress intended the law to protect.

Two key decisions last year may cost us even more wetlands.

In one case, a Southern Maryland developer was indicted and convicted of illegally filling 70 acres of wetlands. But the appeals court overturned his conviction, questioning whether Congress intended such protection for isolated wetlands policy.

In the other decision, a U.S. District Court judge threw out the "Tulloch Rule," which the Army Corps had adopted in 1993 to protect wetlands from draining, ditching or land clearing. The judge in that case called on Congress to clarify our national wetlands.

In response to these disturbing court decisions, I've introduced H.R. 2762, The Wetlands and Watershed Management Act, to amend the Clean Water Act by adding wetlands to the definition of waters of the United States.

My bill clearly authorizes the Army Corps to regulate wetlands. It provides incentives for watershed management planning, including technical and financial assistance to private landowners and expedited permit review for watersheds under comprehensive management. It also includes money to help states, counties and regions develop strong watershed plans.

Protecting wetlands is always controversial because invariably someone will argue that the government is trampling on people's property rights. But I would argue people's property rights are trampled every time someone destroys a wetland.

Consider this scenario: A wetland is destroyed near the Chesapeake Bay, leading to an increase in polluted runoff, affecting water quality and wildlife.

This act reduces the property values of everyone living around the Bay. It reduces fish and shellfish populations, further damaging a seafood industry already hurting. When the environmental quality of the Bay suffers, the travel and tourism industry, which employs millions of workers, suffers. So it follows that allowing the wanton destruction of wetlands may also be construed as an abuse or "taking" of property rights and property values.

Achieving consensus on wetlands reform begin from the premise that laws to protect wetlands must involve a painstaking effort to balance the property rights of everyone involved and not forget public property in the equation. Obviously, we are obligated to minimize the pain for people who are subjected to regulation, and we must never forget the universal benefit of economic activity and economic growth.

If we can agree on this basic premise, then we can balance the various interests involved in crafting environmental laws that provide maximum economic opportunity with minimal environmental degradation and maximum freedom to use private land with minimum adverse impact on other private and public property.

Wetlands are critical elements in nature's grand plan to protect us from ourselves. I hope this Congress seizes the opportunity to make saving what's left of our national wetlands a priority.

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Volume VI Number 14
April 9-15, 1998
New Bay Times

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