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A shift of power over wetlands

Environmentalists fight with developers over a decision that weakensfederal rules on backhoes in the bulrushes.

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There was a time in America when a swamp was viewed as little more than a waterlogged wasteland. Certainly nothing that a bulldozer couldn't cure.

But after generations of education and environmental awareness, many Americans now acknowledge the importance of marshes, bogs, and meadows as filters for water and havens for wildlife.

Now a federal court decision is setting the stage for a landmark fight over the possible ditching and draining of thousands of acres of wetlands across the country. Where backhoe meets bulrush has once again become one of the hottest battlegrounds between environmentalists and developers.

On one side are conservationists seeking to protect clean water and wildlife habitat. On the other are landowners and builders who want to construct homes, stores, and offices on private property without facing expensive and time-consuming government regulations.

At issue is the scope of federal power to regulate certain development activities on privately owned wetlands. A federal appeals court in Washington ruled last year that the Environmental Protection Agency and the US Army Corps of Engineers exceeded their authority by requiring developers to obtain permits before conducting certain kinds of excavation work on wetlands.

The ruling has opened what environmentalists Bulldozers versus bulrushes: new clash over wetlands

argue is a major loophole that has left once-protected wetlands vulnerable to development and destruction. It also raises the prospect of years of litigation. And it points up a lack of congressional consensus in this murky area of environmental law.

Developers say that dire warnings by conservationists of widespread wetlands destruction are exaggerated. They say the court ruling merely restores the state of wetlands regulation under the federal Clean Water Act to the level set by Congress more than a quarter-century ago.

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