SHORTLY after he was elected four years ago, President Bush pledged a no-net-loss goal for managing the nation's dwindling wetlands.
Four days before the Nov. 3 election, however, he issued a little-noticed rule striking down the no-net-loss policy for Alaska, which holds two-thirds of the nation's remaining wetlands.
Developers were ecstatic and environmentalists were outraged Oct. 30 when Mr. Bush issued a special exemption to the Clean Water Act.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulation does not name Alaska specifically. But it only applies to states that have lost less than one percent of their wetlands to development. Sparsely populated Alaska is the only state that qualifies.
Federal regulators say nearly half of Alaska is classified as wetlands. The 170 million acres of wetlands here, including permafrost, account for 70 percent of the remaining United States wetlands, they say.
Industry and municipal officials contend Alaska should not be hindered from further development because of poor wetlands practices elsewhere. Other than mountaintops and glaciers, they say, there is virtually no place in Alaska for development other than wetlands. They often point out that downtown Juneau rests almost entirely on filled-in wetlands.
The no-net-loss policy has drawn its staunchest opposition here from those in favor of development, particularly the oil industry, which claims that the proposed restrictions would virtually shut down expansion on the permafrost-covered North Slope oil fields.
The members of Alaska's all-Republican congressional delegation say the new Alaska rule acknowledges that the nation's "last frontier" has plenty of room for industrial development.
"Treating Alaska the same as the rest of the nation doesn't make sense, because we've only used a small percentage of our wetlands - less than one-tenth of one percent," Rep. Don Young (R) of Alaska declared.
But environmentalists say Alaska should not repeat the mistakes of the "Lower 48." They argue that the vast Alaska wetlands are vital for migrating wildlife, birds that nest nowhere else in the world, and huge fish stocks that fuel world-famous commercial fisheries.
THE exemption, if approved after a mandatory 45-day public review, would allow Alaska to be degraded like other states that have lost most of their wetlands, environmentalists say.
"Because it's a fundamental gutting of important sections of the Clean Water Act, we think it's a mistake," said Pam Miller of the Wilderness Society. "Why shouldn't Alaska developers have to live up to the same standards as the rest of the nation? They're looking to bend the rules to make it easier for controversial projects to go through."
The issue is so emotional that an Oct. 30 news conference called by a pro-development group to hail the new rule dissolved into bitter arguments.
Environmentalists charge that Bush's wetlands decision was timed to boost the reelection bids of Representative Young and US Sen. Frank Murkowski (R) of Alaska - as well as the president's own campaign in the state.
"The timing [was] definitely political," said Jim Young, Alaska issues specialist for the Sierra Club.
If so, then Bush's tactic worked. At the time of the announcement, polls showed Bush running slightly behind Democrat Bill Clinton here. But the president carried the state in the general election. And Young and Senator Murkowski also won their races.
Becky Gay, head of the pro-development Alaska Wetlands Coalition, insisted the wetlands rule was no environmental "October surprise." Environmentalists, she said, had brought the timing on themselves.
"I can't believe the press panders to those guys so much. They are the exact reason it has taken so long to get this out," she said. "To scream now that it's a political thing is to be expected, but I didn't expect the press to buy into that baloney."
Her group, formed after the EPA and US Army Corps of Engineers announced the no-net-loss policy in 1989, has long lobbied for an Alaska exemption, she said. "We have done everything but put a pen in (EPA administrator William) Reilly's hand to get him to sign this thing," she said.
Both sides expect their supporters to flood the White House with reaction to the wetlands rule during the 45-day comment period on the new regulation.