PORTSMOUTH - Local preservationists are not so sure President Bush has the best interests of the environment at heart with his new guidelines for wetlands restoration.
The Bush administration has changed the guidelines for replacing wetlands lost or destroyed through development from an emphasis on acre-to-acre replacement to one that places more importance on "equal ecological value."
Jan Pendlebury, representing the N.H. Office of the National Environmental Trust and N.H. Global Warming Campaign, said, "I think that new proposal gives more leeway, but will remove a lot of the protective buffer zones around ecological systems.
"When you replace acre-for-acre, it protects the continuity of the area. Here we may be talking about a much more finite area, where the ecological system might not include a buffer zone."
Bush officials said the 17-point plan outlined Thursday is meant to clarify previous regulatory language and will not diminish the role that swampy or boggy areas play in providing habitat to wildlife, flood control and water quality.
Decisions governing wetlands, based on the administrationís direction, will affect how and where people must compensate for wetlands lost to development projects.
"These actions affirm this administrationís commitment to the goal of no net loss of Americaís wetlands and its support for protecting our nationís watersheds," said Christine Todd Whitman, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Six federal agencies, including the EPA, decided that their oversight should focus more on the quality of new wetlands being created than on maintaining total wetlands acreage. Former President George H.W. Bush in 1989 had set the goal of "no net loss" of wetlands.
Tens of thousands of acres of wetlands across the nation are being lost to development each year, reducing those areas of land that are critical in helping to filter and cleanse drinking water, retain flood waters, harbor fish and shellfish and support other wildlife - by providing stopping points for migratory birds, for example.
The destruction of wetlands contributes to flooding, pollution runoff into streams and rivers, and the loss of important habitats for fish and wildlife.
"Water is our greatest commodity, so we should do nothing that puts us at danger of losing our clean drinking water," Pendlebury said. "This is just another case of using less precaution, allowing greater pollution and threatening our ecological systems without directly hampering it. I would have concerns that ecological systems often are connected by more indirect means, and this could result in us missing out on a lot of the connectiveness of nature and of the means to maintain a healthy ecological system."
The Bush administrationís chief aim is to prevent wetlands losses and to continue emphasizing that wetlands being created must be similar to what they are intended to replace, EPA spokesman Joe Martyak said.
The underlying needs of a watershed will be given more emphasis than the conventional focus on any net loss of acreage, said Martyak. The administrationís approach will be based on "not just acre-for-acre" comparisons, he said, so that regulators in some cases might conclude that "itís a numerical loss, but itís an ecological gain."
Other aspects of the plan include using better tools for monitoring and measuring successes or failures, such as an interagency database and an annual public "report card" on replaced wetlands acreage.
The administrationís approach is a response to criticism from the National Academy of Sciences and the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, which found that many wetlands replacement projects were failures and not well tracked.
Material reported by The Associated Press is included in this story.
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