WASHINGTON -- A decade-old national goal of "no net loss" of the nation's wetlands acreage -- new and restored wetlands equaling the acreage of wetlands destroyed or disturbed -- has not only been met, but has been exceeded, argues Jonathan Tolman of the Competitive Enterprise Institute in the July/August issue of ELI's National Wetlands Newsletter. But other authors in the issue question this conclusion -- pointing to inconsistencies in how various agencies count wetlands acres, and the poor implementation and monitoring of many restoration projects counted towards the goal.
"Since the mid-1980s, the federal government has offered financial and technical incentives to encourage wetland restoration, and these programs are making a significant impact, especially in inland, agricultural regions," said ELI Senior Attorney Teresa Opheim, editor of the National Wetlands Newsletter. "There should be more debate on whether we are indeed stabilizing wetland acreage loss, if so the reasons why, and the implications for different regions and types of wetlands."
The incentive programs include the Wetlands Reserve Program, Partners for Wildlife, and the North American Waterfowl Management Plan. According to Ralph Heimlich and his coauthors from the USDA's Economic Research Service, at least two other factors also account for the slowed wetland acreage loss rate. Under the Clean Water Act, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers regulates the draining or filling of wetlands, and often requires "mitigation" -- creating or restoring wetlands elsewhere to make up for the loss. In addition, the USDA's Swampbuster program cuts off price support to farmers who drain wetlands for crop production.
Nationwide tallies of wetlands acres do not tell the whole story -- they incorporate both regional gains and losses, and do not reflect either the quantity or quality of different types of wetlands habitat, according to some researchers. For example, writes Susan-Marie Stedman of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in the 1980s, three times more wetlands were lost to development in coastal states than in inland states. Critics also charge that many mitigation projects required by the Corps of Engineers are never completed, and that follow-up monitoring to ensure the success of those projects is inadequate -- even as these acres are counted as progress toward national goals.
"Both the Bush and Clinton administrations have endorsed no-net-loss as a goal of their wetlands policies. Achieving this goal would be a landmark event," Opheim said. "However, the no-net-loss goal is, at best, only a rough indicator of the overall health of our wetland resource. Evidence indicates that progress has been much slower on the more important policy goal, that is, to increase the quality of the resource base as well."
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