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Government policies towards wetlands are changing.
Not long ago wetlands were places blamed for many problems. Cities zoned them for industrial uses and mosquito control boards ditched and drained them to rid their towns of the disease-carrying insects. From the mid-1800s until as late as the 1980s, government policies subsidized farmers' conversion of wetlands to cropland.
By the mid-1980s, old policies encouraging draining and developing wetlands, along with landowners efforts to do the same things, had reduced wetland acreage nationwide by about 117 million acres, or roughly half their original total.
This nearly wholesale conversion resulted in rich, new cropland to feed a developing nation and growing economy, but it also reduced many of the valuable attributes associated with wetlands, such as plants and wildlife and helping to maintain water quality.
Increasing concern over wetland losses led to support for their protection, beginning on a broad scale in the 1970s. Government protections now encompass virtually all wetlands. This has made them the only ecosystems type to be comprehensively regulated across all public and private lands in the U.S.
Government agencies now work together, offering a variety of programs to acquire, restore and protect wetlands. Some give incentives to farmers to restore wetlands that were once converted to cropland. Most of these programs require developers to obtain permits before building on wetlands.
Among the most controversial of these permitting programs is section 404 of the Clean Water Act, which prohibits most wetland alterations without a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Despite the overwhelming change from destroying wetlands to restoring or creating them, the regulatory process remains controversial. Landowners often oppose restrictions on developing wetlands, while conservation groups want more controls.
About three fourths of the country's remaining wetlands are on private land and part of the controversy comes from benefits of wetland protection being shared by the public, while costs are the responsibility of the landowner.
Benefits of wetlands . . . clean water, wildlife habitat, flood control, etc. . . are generally acknowledged by all, but many landowners believe that if government restricts development of their land, then government should have to pay for or share in the costs of restoring that land.
Today, two federal agencies share the bulk of responsibility for administering federal programs regulating wetlands.
The Corps of Engineers, traditionally involved with large public works projects such as dams, rivers and canals, administers Section 404 of the Clean Water Act. The USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service oversees wetland conversions by those participating in the federal farm program. These rules are commonly referred to as "Swampbuster" provisions.
Did You Know?
The following two federal agencies share most of the responsibility for administering federal programs regulating wetlands.
The Urban Land Institute