Wait-and-See Is Best This Time : Don't rush to judgment without wetlands data

So far in this century, California has lost tidal marsh and swamp and other wetlands at eight times the rate of the 1800s and is now down to about 10% of what the early settlers found.

So it seems natural for Gov. Pete Wilson's office to take a wait-and-see attitude on President Bush's proposal to change federal rules for protecting wetlands. It is not a bad example for Californians to follow, although environmentalists and developers have already chosen sides.

But the White House position paper does raise issues worth singling out for special attention while the proposals are debated.

Bush gets high marks from environmentalists, for example, for proposing to increase money for wetlands research.

Some of that research probably should be done before any plan is put in motion, although the White House already seems to understand the importance of wetlands and the need to protect them better than Congress.

The House, for example, seems ready to adopt wetlands legislation written by the oil industry.

The Bush plan would make more money available for saving the best of the wetlands and for opening to development what seem to be marginal wetlands. Before the concept is locked into law, the debate must determine that wetlands designated as marginal are of little or no value.

Another point that warrants close study is Bush's call for an approach that balances wetlands protection against "the need for sustained economic growth and development." That is the wrong way to measure balance. The important balance is the balance between the needs of wildlife and human beings and the dwindling ability of wetlands to meet those needs.

There was a time when the country often had to choose between wetlands and growth. Railroads were essential to prosperity late in the last century and early in this one. Early locomotives needed flat terrain to haul freight, a criterion best met by laying track along rivers, often taking out good bottom land.

But location generally is less crucial to progress in this high-tech society.

The President provided a splendid thumbnail sketch of the role of wetlands in nature. As he said, they provide natural flood control, help filter waste from water, provide food and shelter for wildlife and recreation for people.

There will be ample anecdotal evidence that some property is not properly designated as wetlands--as in some cases in which land that has been farmed for two or more generations without significant environmental damage has been put off limits.

But the role of wetlands is, as the President said, important.

Wetlands are too important for the question of which shall be preserved and which sacrificed to economic growth to be determined anecdotally.

The debate must center on the most reliable scientific evidence of the consequences of destroying any more than the 90% of the wetlands that already are gone in California. Until the answers are clear, Washington, too, should wait and see.

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