Conservation Editor Bob Marshall reveals that the Department of the Interior’s new claim of wetlands growth holds no water.
The Bush Administration announced last week that the nation is no longer losing wetlands–as long as you consider golf course water hazards to be wetlands.
Thursday, Interior Secretary Gale Norton called a press conference to claim our long nightmare of wetlands loss had finally come to an end due to unprecedented gains since 1997 (http://wetlandsfws.er.usgs.gov/status_trends/national_reports/trends_2005_report.pdf) However, she then admitted much of that gain has been in artificially created ponds, such as golf course water hazards and farm impoundments.
The sporting community–from Ducks Unlimited to the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership–reacted quickly, and not favorably. Researchers long ago established that natural wetlands such as marshes, swamps and prairie potholes are far more productive than even the best-designed artificial wetlands. And sharp-edged water bodies like water hazards, farm ponds, and even reservoirs offer very little for wildlife. Putting man-made ponds in the same class as natural wetlands is like ranking pen-raised quail with wild coveys.
The boldness of Norton’s claim was particularly galling given the Bush Administration’s record on wetlands. President Bush, like other presidents before him, promised a policy of “no net loss” of wetlands, but his administration has consistently supported rollbacks of the Clean Water Act to satisfy industry and development.
In fact, at the same press conference, the Fish and Wildlife Service reported a continued loss of 523,500 acres of natural wetlands during the same time period. So how could the nation have come out ahead if it lost more than half a million acres? Norton didn’t try to hide the truth: The 715,300-acre “gain” was mainly artificial ponds.
While saying the nation’s wetlands picture remains “precarious,” Norton added that “even ponds that are not a high quality of wetlands are better than not having wetlands.”
Now there’s ringing endorsement of the president’s program.
Norton’s announcement was likely an act of setting the table for more administration assaults on wetlands protections. It was probably no coincidence that three days earlier, the Army Corps of Engineers and Environmental Protection Agency proposed new regulations that encourage development of companies that build artificial wetlands used by industries that destroy the vital natural habitats. It’s part of the wetlands mitigation banking concept–which gives companies permits to drain wetlands, as long as they produce “new” wetlands somewhere else.
Norton may think a water hazard is better than no wetlands but for fish, wildlife and sportsmen, but it may be even worse. That type of public policy provides an excuse for more permits to drain more natural and productive wetlands to be replaced by non-productive water hazards. Those might be good for real estate values along the 18th fairway, but for fish and wildlife that rely on wetlands ecosystems to survive, it’s terrible.