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Protecting Wetlands

FLOOD and drought have made big news in middle America this summer. Now another water issue has been pushed into the spotlight by the Clinton administration: protection of wetlands.

The White House released this week a plan for protecting most wetlands in the country, including Alaska's. Although the Bush administration made changes in wetlands policy, several of these have now been superseded by the Clinton administration's revamp.

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Bush had exempted 1.7 million acres of Alaska's vast 170 million acres of wetlands from protection; President Clinton has restored protection to all of that state's public lands. There are 100 million acres of wetlands in the states other than Alaska.

Environmentalists are generally pleased with the Clinton remake, although they see possible problems in implementation.

The president has also closed some loopholes that have in the past been used by developers of shopping malls and housing tracts to infringe on areas denoted as protected. But there still is provision for appeals.

Under the new protection system wetlands on farms will be controlled by the United States Department of Agriculture.

One concession environmentalists are not happy about is a decision not to push to change the status of wetlands drained before 1985.

A more precise definition of what constitutes wetlands has never been agreed upon, but Mr. Clinton has assigned that task to the National Academy of Sciences.

To strengthen the new policy, Clinton is asking Congress to include acknowledgment of its role in the reauthorization of the Clean Water Act.

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All this activity in connection with wetlands protection may seem excessive to some Americans, and concerns remain that wetlands protection could unduly restrain legitimate construction and other activities. All the same, experience shows that once resources such as land and water are changed by human activities, the likelihood of being able to reverse the result of policy is slight.

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