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New Rules Could Result in Vast Wetlands Loss in Florida, Scientists Fear : Environment: Possible damage to the state’s unique ecosystem outrages activists. Farmers and developers support the proposed changes.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There were fish swimming in the waters that covered 217th Avenue as Frank Bernadino slowly cruised south past the Sweeting residence. The floor boards of the county truck were wet from the backwash. Gwen Burzycki, who was riding on the roof taking pictures, pointed out a “speed zone ahead” sign and joked that a “no wake” warning would be more appropriate.

But neither Bernadino nor Burzycki, biologists with Dade County’s environmental agency, were finding much to laugh about last month during a survey of wetlands that new federal regulations could open up to developers.

“As crazy as it seems,” said Bernadino, stopping the truck in water that crested halfway up the tires, “because there is virtually no top soil on the limestone rock (on the land to the west), it would not qualify as wetlands. Hard to believe, isn’t it?”

Here in the saw grass prairie, along a flooded avenue some 30 miles from downtown Miami, is where South Florida development and wilderness meet, not with a bang but a ripple. Here is the Everglades, a vast and fragile ecosystem described more than 40 years ago by Marjory Stoneman Douglas, the grande dame of environmentalists, as “a river of grass.”

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Robert Sweeting, a mechanic, lives with his family on the west side of 217th Avenue, on land added to Everglades National Park two years ago. While he would not be allowed to build here now, he is permitted to stay. “I like not having any neighbors,” he says.

But Douglas, still crusading at the age of 101, and a host of other environmentalists and scientists, fear that the Sweetings could soon have a lot of neighbors on the other side of the road. They have reacted in outrage to what they say is the possibility that up to half of the state’s 11 million acres of wetlands could lose federal protection, and vast areas of South Florida’s fragile ecosystem could be paved over with tract housing, shopping centers and roads.

Their protests have been triggered by new wetlands guidelines proposed by the Bush Administration that many critics call a retreat from the President’s “no net loss of wetlands” campaign pledge in 1988. Similar criticisms are being sounded in other parts of the country, including California, amid fears that 50% or more of the 108 million acres now designated as wetlands could be opened to development if the guidelines are adopted.

Indeed, the proposed changes have set off such a storm of controversy that the Administration has begun to back away from the plan. Last week, a spokesman for Vice President Dan Quayle, who as head of the President’s Council on Competitiveness approved the revisions, said the guidelines would be reconsidered.

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The usual 60-day comment period, already extended by two months, until Dec. 14, is now likely to be continued well into next year, according to Administration sources.

Wetlands, critical as a habitat for wildlife, flood control and as recharge areas for drinking water, are defined by criteria governing the number of days of inundation, soil saturation and type of plant life. Existing definitions, for example, say a wetland is any ground that is covered by muck or peat-based soils and has water within 18 inches of the surface for at least seven days of the growing season.

Developers, farmers, and oil and timber interests have long complained that those definitions, adopted in 1989, were too restrictive, protecting lands that were not true wetlands. Quayle himself complained that the definition would cause a wide swath of his home state of Indiana to fall under wetlands protection.

After months of private debate, the Council on Competitiveness reviewed and revised a new set of standards suggested by scientists from four federal agencies. Under these definitions, published in August by the Environmental Protection Agency, the soil would have to be saturated for 21 consecutive days, or be covered by standing water for 15 consecutive days a year.

In the weeks that followed, teams of scientists from the EPA, the Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service visited 450 wetlands sites to field-test the impact of the changes. Their findings, which the White House tried to keep secret, confirmed that in some regions up to 80% of lands now classified as wetlands would lose protection.

The guidelines were almost universally condemned by the investigators, who in some cases described them as “unworkable” and “scientifically unsound.”

In much of the Everglades, for example, there is no topsoil at all; plants grow right out of the limestone. Water levels, once controlled by natural forces, now fluctuate according to the dictates of agriculture or flood control managers. As a result, as many as 40,000 acres inside Everglades National Park would fail the new wetlands test.

“It’s a cruel hoax,” says Mark M. Brinson, a biologist at East Carolina University and a former president of the Society of Wetlands Scientists, of the proposed wetlands definitions. “There is no new science behind this, and it is certainly not conducive to the social welfare of the nation.”

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Almost all the wetlands meeting the 1989 definition in the Pacific Northwest, prairie potholes and hardwood forest flood plains of countless rivers and streams, and the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia could also be affected, according to a study conducted by Brinson for the National Audubon Society.

In California, wetlands such as vernal pools, which come to life after seasonal rainfall, could be endangered, according to Prof. Joy B. Zedler, a wetlands ecologist at San Diego State University. Around Otay Mesa, for example, the site of a proposed international airport, “We could lose an incredible amount of acreage,” she said.

But no state in the Lower 48 has more wetland acreage than Florida, and nowhere is its function more critical than in this 400-mile-long peninsula that was once more water than dry land.

“The people making these proposals are not sensitive to what we have here in Florida,” said Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), after a recent airboat tour of the area.

The 1.5 million acres now in Everglades National Park would not be touched. But according to some estimates, as much as 50,000 acres of land around it--all part of the same interdependent ecosystem--could be.

Many Florida farmers have supported the proposed changes. And Lisa Maxwell, spokeswoman for the Builders Assn. of South Florida, says: “No one wants to destroy a quality wetland. But when you’re talking ‘no growth,’ that’s another thing.”

Last month, the lobbying group urged its 1,000 member firms to join a letter-writing campaign in a memo that read: “We are on the verge of getting the wetlands manual version that would be most helpful to the industry. But we must send 1,600 letters to EPA to ‘help’ them get the point!”

For much of this century, the Everglades have been viewed as a “noxious swamp,” and an impediment to progress. Indeed, one of Florida’s early governors was elected on a promise to drain them completely. But with the publication in 1947 of Douglas’ seminal book, “The Everglades: River of Grass,” and the creation of the national park that same year, appreciation of the wetlands’ vital function began to grow.

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Still, more than 9 million acres of Florida’s wetlands have been lost to drainage, dredging and filling this century, while mercury contamination, agricultural drainage, proliferating exotic plant species and the interruption of the natural sheet flow of water over the land has imperiled both the wildlife and wetlands that remain. A project designed to restore the Everglades to its natural state is expected to cost $700 million and take a decade to complete.

Carol M. Browner, secretary of the state’s Department of Environmental Regulation, has been one of the harshest critics of the Bush Administration proposals, calling them “a step backward for wetlands protection in Florida.”

In a detailed, eight-page letter to the EPA, Browner said that it is impossible to define South Florida’s wetlands with the same criteria used in the Blue Ridge Mountains, for example, and suggests that the state “be assigned specific Florida indicator status.”

Moreover, Browner wrote, “One is left to wonder why the federal government expended such time and effort suing the state of Florida over the protection of these same wetlands, only to determine that they are not worthy of regulatory protection.”

That refers to the 1988 lawsuit brought by the U.S. Justice Department charging the state and the South Florida Water Management District with allowing the pollution of the Everglades, chiefly from runoff nutrients from surrounding farms, by failing to enforce existing laws.

After 2 1/2 years, and some $12 million in legal fees, the suit was settled in July after Gov. Lawton Chiles admitted the pollution and agreed to a massive cleanup that includes construction of a $15-million marsh on lands adjacent to the national park.


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