Around the country, there are small, isolated swampy areas that are home to a lot of plants and animals. You can often hear frogs singing, or see ducks dabbling for food in these murky waters. Some experts say the government has weakened regulations that once protected these smaller wetlands. Now, they say, many of these wetlands are being drained, filled in and lost. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mark Brush has more:
Around the country there are small, isolated swampy areas that are home
to a lot of plants and animals. You can often hear frogs singing, or
see ducks dabbling for food in these murky waters. Some experts say
the government has weakened regulations that once protected these
smaller wetlands. Now, they say, many of these wetlands are being
drained, filled in and lost. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mark
Brush has more:
This small wetland is nestled in the middle of a woodlot. Mud is
squishing under our feet as we walk around it. The water is still, and
dark… filled with last year’s rotting leaves.
This is no place for humans to live. But for wildlife, this is home.
(sound of chorus and wood frogs)
“That looks like what was left of a whirligig beetle – that’s a real
common insect in these types of habitats.”
We’re out here with Dave Brakhage. He’s a conservationist with Ducks
Unlimited. He says these small wetlands are where ducks take their
ducklings for food.
Brakhage brought us here to show us an example of a wetland that was
once protected by federal regulations:
“These wetlands are isolated because there’s not a direct water
connection from them to a lake or stream or other water body in the
area. They’re geographically isolated.”
Being isolated puts these wetlands into a sort of regulatory limbo. To
dredge or fill a wetland like this 4 years ago – you needed to apply
for a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers.
Now – in many parts of the country – you don’t need that permit.
That’s because in 2001 the Supreme Court ruled on a case from the
Chicago area that changed everything. The court’s decision opened up a
lot debate about whether isolated wetlands should be protected by the
Dave Brakhage says the ruling gave the Bush Administration an
opportunity to issue a guidance to government agencies.
“The Supreme Court ruling certainly threw into question a lot of the
protections that were in place there. And that opened the door to the
guidance. And depending on how the guidance came down and the
interpretations associated with it. It could certainly make things a
whole lot worse.”
The Bush administration issued these instructions to the federal
agencies in January of 2003.
But conservation officials and environmentalists believe the
administration went too far with these instructions, going beyond what
the Supreme Court ruling required.
The instructions were issued prior to drafting a final, formal rule.
But before it finalized the rule – the Bush Administration got an
“There was a lot of concern expressed on the part of a pretty broad
swath of the American Public.”
Scott Yaich is the Director of Conservation Programs with Ducks
Unlimited. He says the Administration heard protests from those they
“We were talking about people who were concerned about the environment,
and in this case there were a lot of hunters and a other sporting
groups and angling groups that went into him, and those are a pretty
core part of the Republican and the President’s base.”
So President Bush stopped the rule-making process that would lift the
But… the original instructions to the agencies still stand.
And the Administration has no plans to change them.
Julie Sibbing is wetlands policy specialist with the National Wildlife
Federation. She says getting the President to back away from finalizing
the rule was a small victory, but there’s still a lot to be done:
“It was a right decision at we do recognize that and we praise the
administration for taking the right step, but they’ve got a long way to
go yet. We still have a long way to go – and there’s a lot at risk.
In fact the EPA’s own estimates are that the guidance has put about 20
million acres, or about 20% of what we have left in the lower 48 states
of wetlands at risk.”
But the risk is not the same for wetlands in different areas of the
country. So today, when developers and landowners go to the Army Corps
of Engineers to apply for a permit, they get different responses
depending on where they are.
Some Corps districts have turned their back on the isolated wetlands,
telling developers no permits are needed.
Other Corps districts are waiting for clearer direction.
Mitch Isoe is the Chief of the Regulatory Branch for the Corps’ Chicago
District. He says he just wants to know what he’s supposed to do.
“We would like to have revised rules on the definitions for our
jurisdiction. We’d just like to have the critical terms that are
causing all of these difficulties defined in a way that two people in
two parts of the country can read the same sentence, go out on the
ground and end up at the same point. And, you know, right now the
field is helpless to do that, because the decision on not to pursue
rulemaking was made in Washington.”
With mixed messages coming from the White House, the Corps of Engineers
and the Environmental Protection Agency are struggling with how and
whether to regulate these wetlands.
In the meantime, it’s generally left up to the states to pass laws to
protect these areas.
Some states have laws that do that, others don’t.
(sound of frogs)
Ducks Unlimited and other conservation and environmental groups are
working with the Administration to protect these wetlands. Dave
Brakhage says doing so will benefit more than just ducks:
“And it’s not just the wildlife – you know wetlands are important in
terms of storing floodwaters, an important site for restoring ground
water recharge, and also have a big role to play in improving our water
The Bush Administration says it’s committed to preserving wetlands, and
it even says it plans to increase the amount of wetlands in the U.S.
Environmentalists and hunting groups say they don’t see that happening
right now. But they’re pushing the Administration to make good on that
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Mark Brush.