A Policy Showdown in Prairie Wetlands

Times Staff Writer

Rolling down the flat interstate, Chuck Clayton points out what once were wetlands thick with cattails and waterfowl. Now the ground is drained and plowed, awaiting the spring thaw and a new crop of corn and soybeans.

“I see it everywhere,” said Clayton, a retired utility worker who steers big rigs part time across the prairie states. “If this much is going on along an interstate,” he said of the disappearing wetlands, “imagine how much is going on where nobody can see it.”

For the record:

12:00 AM, Apr. 14, 2005 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday April 14, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Prairie wetlands -- An article in Tuesday’s Section A about disappearing wetlands in the prairie states referred to Chuck Clayton as national vice president of the Izaak Walton League. Clayton is president of the league.

His Chevy Suburban well-stocked with guns, ammo and duck calls, Clayton may not look like a conservationist. But he is national vice president of the 50,000-member Izaak Walton League, one of the country’s oldest hunting and fishing groups.

“Anyone who likes to hunt is crazy not to be somewhat of an environmentalist,” he said. “We need to take care of the land.”


The marshes, bogs and seasonal ponds in this heartland state are at the center of a tug of war between two of President Bush’s most-valued constituencies -- hunters who want to preserved game habitat and farmers who want land they can till.

As an avid hunter and the owner of a Texas ranch, Bush has reached out to both groups. Three years ago, he signed a farm bill increasing spending by almost 80%.

Last year, Bush invited leaders of several hunting and fishing groups to his ranch to reassure them of his concern for wetlands. Before the election, he vowed: “Instead of just limiting our losses, we will expand wetlands.”

But interviews and government reports show that, although the administration has offered farmers financial incentives, the primary tools for wetland preservation have been weakened.


As the result of a court ruling and administration policy, key Clean Water Act provisions are not being applied in many instances. And an agricultural program that prohibits farmers from draining wetlands has a long history of poor enforcement.

Wetlands are fragile places that filter water before it moves into aquifers and waterways. They provide flood and erosion control. They feed and shelter amphibians, game birds and deer. Yet federal officials estimate that more than half of the nation’s 220 million acres of wetlands outside Alaska have succumbed to the developer’s bulldozer and the farmer’s plow since Colonial times.

Government officials and conservationists agree that wetland losses have slowed in recent decades. But despite optimistic government reports, there is disagreement and uncertainty about whether destruction is surpassing restoration.

“Progress continues ... but there’s no question wetland loss continues,” said Don Young, executive vice president of 700,000-member Ducks Unlimited. “The Dakotas and Montana are where we need to make our stand.”


South Dakota -- with an agrarian economy and a multimillion-dollar business in tourism and hunting -- is shaping up as a major testing ground for Bush’s promise to add to the nation’s supply of wetlands as well as his ability to reconcile landowner rights and environmental safeguards.

The state is the hub of a region -- there are 10 million wetland acres in the Dakotas, Montana, Iowa and Minnesota -- where many of this country’s ducks and geese begin life or rest during migrations.

The eastern half of South Dakota, alone, contains hundreds of thousands of prairie potholes, shallow depressions formed by glaciers.

Although many prairie potholes are less than an acre, they can be obstacles in the path of growing cities and farms.


“The best of the last is still here in the Dakotas, but we’re losing it fast,” said Carl Madsen, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist. For Bush, the wetlands issue has run an awkward course since 2001. The Supreme Court ruled then that an abandoned gravel pit in Cook County, Ill., could be filled. The court said it did not qualify as a protected wetland under the Clean Water Act, even if migratory fowl used it.

In 2003, the administration proposed rules to apply the Illinois case to wetlands across America and to drop protection for isolated wetlands not linked to navigable waters.

Farm groups applauded the administration’s move. But there was an outcry from the heavily rural and Republican ranks of hunting and fishing groups.

The administration dropped its proposal, but left in place guidelines for field staff, which said that intrastate wetlands could not be protected unless they were clearly connected to navigable waters.


The Army Corps of Engineers stopped requiring permits to fill or dredge these wetlands, and as a result, said Steve Naylor, the corps’ regulatory manager for South Dakota, “there is less [wetlands] protection now.”

Environmental groups have sued the corps and other agencies in several states for allowing the development or destruction of wetlands without requiring Clean Water permits.

In farm states like South Dakota, however, the fate of wetlands depends most heavily on a U.S. Department of Agriculture program that federal auditors say has suffered from lax enforcement for many years.

Under the 20-year-old Swampbuster program, farmers risk losing their crop subsidies if they drain wetlands.


But a Government Accountability Office audit said that USDA field offices frequently failed to check farms for wetlands violations. It said the relatively few farmers cited were likely to win appeals, which are heard by committees of farmers, or to have their penalties reduced by the USDA’s Farm Service Agency.

The GAO report blamed much of the failure on the reluctance of local USDA workers to cite farmers whom they normally assisted.

That is especially true in South Dakota, where the population is only 750,000 and communities are close-knit, said government employees familiar with the enforcement system. “Everybody knows everybody, and your kids may be going to the same school or the same church,” said one.

Many farmers dislike being told how to treat their land, and insist they know how to care for water and wildlife.


“We’ve still got a ton of wetlands out here,” said Dan Von Eye, a Flandreau, S.D., farmer who lost his subsidy for two years while he successfully appealed a drainage violation. “And those ducks and geese ... are just fine.”

No South Dakota farmers were cited for Swampbuster violations during routine reviews over the last several years, according to government statistics. But officials say field staff have acted on an unknown number of complaints about wetland violations, which often are resolved when farmers repair the damage.

Janet L. Oertly, the USDA’s conservation chief in the state, believes there are few violations because farmers are sensitive to wetlands issues and careful not to jeopardize their subsidies. “The majority ... check with the local field office before doing any work related to wetlands,” she said.

Farmers acknowledge that enforcement is not as aggressive as it once was, and they are glad.


“With this administration, it seems there’s more willingness to work with the producer to see what works best for the producer ... and the environment as opposed to using the big stick,” said Michael Held, administrative director of the South Dakota Farm Bureau Federation.

Conservationists see a system rife with loopholes and dominated by a pro-farmer culture that makes it difficult for USDA employees to protect wetlands.

“There is no wetland cop,” said Mike Williams, who runs a nonprofit watershed restoration project and is the state Izaak Walton League president. “The tractors are rolling, the pipe is laying.”

Bruce Knight, chief of the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, says he is addressing problems with Swampbuster. “I am looking at the whole thing, top to bottom -- the system, enforcement and rules,” he said.


A South Dakota farmer and former vice president of a national corn growers group, Knight believes the government has stopped wetland losses on farms and speaks confidently about achieving the president’s goal of increasing wetlands. “We have tools now to do net gains.”

The administration is banking on a variety of incentive programs to help protect at least 3 million acres of wetlands nationally.

South Dakota conservation chief Oertly said about 180,000 acres of wetlands were enrolled here in several federal programs.

The 15-year-old Wetlands Reserve Program pays farmers for permanent easements and shorter-term rental agreements. They are required to stop cultivating former wetlands and help restore them.


Ron Reynolds of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in North Dakota said easements purchased with money from federal duck hunting stamps preserve an additional 1 million acres in the Dakotas. “We focus on the smallest ones that are easiest to drain,” he said of the long-standing program.

Wildlife officials are conducting an assessment that may reveal whether the president is making good on his promise of a net gain in wetlands.

A recent USDA study concluded there was a net gain of 263,000 wetland acres on farms and ranches between 1997 and 2003. And Knight of the USDA conservation service said, “There is a clear opportunity to have a tremendous win ... by achieving the president’s ambitious goal” of an overall gain in wetlands.

However, government auditors have questioned the reliability of past wetlands estimates. And Clayton of the Izaak Walton League is skeptical. “For someone to tell me we have reached no net loss is crazy.” he said. “We’re losing wetlands every day.”