- July 23 - A new report from two of the nation's leading environmental groups
warns of serious threats to people and wildlife stemming from a 2001 Supreme Court
decision narrowing the scope of federal environmental protection for the nation's
wetlands. The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) and the Natural Resources Defense
Council (NRDC) say the ruling invites the destruction of millions of acres of
so-called isolated wetlands, eliminating their important role in providing flood
control, natural water purification and essential wildlife habitat.
The report, "Wetlands at Risk: Imperiled Treasures," details the
vital role played by isolated wetlands across all regions of the country, highlighting
the important functions at risk. The report also calls for federal legislation
that would clarify Congress' view that the protection of isolated wetlands is
critical to water quality, public safety, wildlife and other public interests,
including hunting and fishing and that the Clean Water Act protects isolated wetlands
and other waters. The clarification is essential because tens of thousands acres
of wetlands of all types continue to be lost each year in spite of Clean Water
"America can't afford to squander all the benefits these wetlands provide,"
said Julie Sibbing NWF's wetlands legislative representative. "The court
may have opened the door to misguided wetlands destruction, but Congress can shut
Isolated wetlands get their designation from their lack of a direct surface
connection to other water bodies, though they are critically necessary to the
healthy functioning of the overall ecosystem. Because isolated wetlands are often
small or exist only for a short period each year, their importance is often not
appreciated by policymakers and the public. The lack of awareness of their environmental
importance makes isolated wetlands especially vulnerable to development.
Congress included protections for wetlands in the 1972 Clean Water Act. However,
in January 2001 a divided Supreme Court held that a federal agency had exceeded
its regulatory authority under the law when it tried to block construction of
a landfill site that would destroy some 17 acres of seasonal ponds that provide
habitat for hundreds of migratory birds. (Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook
County (SWANCC) v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) The court held that habitat protection
for the birds was not enough to warrant government jurisdiction over the ponds
and raised the question whether the Clean Water Act protects "non-navigable,
isolated, intrastate" waters.
The court's ruling has created confusion by leaving open to interpretation
the question of which wetlands are in fact "isolated." Some have read
the decision to mean that isolated wetlands -- possibly comprising as much as
30 percent of America's wetlands -- are, in fact, excluded from protection under
the Clean Water Act.
Under the Clean Water Act, the Environmental Protection Agency has the primary
responsibility for protecting the nation's waters. In the absence of clear guidance
from EPA interpreting this ruling, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers district offices
across the country are taking widely varying approaches to jurisdictional questions,
in some instances declining to protect waters that are still covered by the Clean
Water Act. In addition to supporting new legislation, NWF and NRDC are urging
the Bush administration to act quickly and definitively to ensure that federal
agencies fully understand the limits of the court's ruling and their inherent
responsibility to safeguard the nation's water resources.
"The Supreme Court's ruling makes the future uncertain for millions of
acres of wetlands, but the Bush administration can clear up the confusion,"
said Daniel Rosenberg, and attorney with NRDC's Clean Water Project. "It
all depends on how the administration views wetlands, either as natural treasures
worthy of protection or as places best suited for landfills, strip malls, parking
lots, and subdivisions."
The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, non-profit organization
of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public
health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 500,000 members
nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
The nation's largest member-supported conservation education and advocacy
group, the National Wildlife Federation unites people from all walks of life to
protect nature, wildlife and the world we all share. On the web at www.nwf.org,
the Federation has educated and inspired families to uphold America's conservation
tradition since 1936.