Wading in Political Swamps : President should listen to Wilson on wetlands policy

Naturalists call them wetlands, these fast-vanishing breeding grounds for fish and fowl that are essential to nature's cycle. But as far as President Bush is concerned, every blasted one is a political swamp.

Now comes Gov. Pete Wilson to confirm Bush's assessment: The moderate Wilson is now making the naturalists' case. In a polite but firm letter to the White House, Wilson said the President's latest effort to pull himself free of the quicksand won't pass muster in California. He recommends appointing a panel of experts to write a whole new set of rules for wetlands as a National Academy of Sciences project.

The new rules, he said, should take into account regional differences in describing land that qualifies for protection from development because it is environmentally important.

The trouble began in 1989 when four agencies that often came up with conflicting conclusions about what qualified as wetlands wrote a new manual so they would all be making rulings based on the same factors.

As with any attempt to change rules, there were problems. Some farmers, for example, were unable to plant soil that had been productively in their families for decades. The Bush Administration tried to write a new version, but it was rejected as unworkable and unscientific by the agencies that would enforce the rules.

Wilson said Bush's proposed rules would undermine California's definition of wetlands that the state is trying to protect "and likely would cause irreparable damage to the state's natural resource base."

The uproar over lost wetlands should have been enough to persuade Bush to take another look. Now Wilson's letter should remove any doubt that it's wise to start rethinking how to stop the disappearance of vast stretches of wetlands.

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