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It’s A Critical Time In Political Battle Over The Wetlands

Fri., June 23, 1995

A scared little bunny rabbit, down in hostile territory, surrounded by aggressors taking potshots, tormented by cows…

No, this isn’t a rehash of pilot Scott O’Grady’s Bosnian nightmare.

The descriptions tell the plight of the wetlands scientist - a bad dream come true right here in the good ol’ USA.

With no fanfare, nearly 100 wetlands specialists from state and federal agencies, universities and the private sector are convening in Spokane this week to enrich their understanding of Earth’s underrated wet spots.

Shortsighted politicians are telling these scientists to jump in a lake because wetlands monitoring makes life difficult for farmers, loggers, miners and developers who want to replace cattails with condos.

You should be disturbed if you enjoy seeing a line of ducklings behind a hen mallard, paddling past wild iris, reeling in trout and sleeping out to the rumble of bullfrogs. You should be outraged if you know that rivers shouldn’t suffer a 100-year flood every five years.

But some people in high places consider these luxuries expendable.

“We were going to have the Spokane County planning director introduce our keynote speaker, but the planner got fired last week,” said an ecologist whose name is mercifully withheld. “The planning department was three years behind in complying with the state’s Growth Management Act, and that was a little too liberal for our county commissioners.”

Steve Hasson and Phil Harris apparently don’t want to disrupt the rush of development that’s fouling natural areas, paving wetlands and clogging already jammed arterials.

The commissioners have demoted planners and put Spokane on the fast-track to Seattle-like gridlock by shrugging off the Growth Management Act as though it were the 55 mph speed limit in Montana.

This is merely one local example of an insidious national disaster in the making.

Mike Fritz, a high-ranking wetlands ecologist for the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C., took the podium at the Red Lion Motor Inn Wednesday to update the scientists on the political muck that’s bogging down wetlands protection.

A National Academy of Sciences study ordered last year by the 102nd Congress to make science-based reform in wetlands regulations has fallen on deaf ears in the 103rd Congress, he said.

In other words, the new Turks on Capitol Hill are saying, “Don’t bother us with the facts.”

While the House has passed a bill to unravel the Clean Water Act, Sen. Bob Dole has co-sponsored a similar setback to wetlands protection.

For instance, Dole’s bill seeks to broaden the definition of “prior cultivated cropland,” which is exempt from wetlands protection, to include land that has produced forage for livestock.

“I don’t know if there’s much of this country that livestock hasn’t grazed at some time,” Fritz said.

This legislation would strip wetlands classification from 80-90 percent of the areas currently considered prime wetlands in Washington, said Andy McMillan of the Washington Department of Ecology

“Add in the exemptions they’re proposing, and only about 2 percent of the wetlands in this state would still qualify for wetlands protection,” he said.

Most of Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge would no longer be officially considered wetlands, he said.

Virtually none of the wildlife-rich scabland wetlands west of Spokane would qualify under the preposterous proposed definitions.

Wetlands scientists know that America has already drained 50 percent of its original wetlands. Paving the way for more water to speed from our fields to the ocean threatens the existence of tundra swans and the easy availability of well water.

But politicians aren’t blinking.

Scientists are trained to put everything into the perspective of the past and the future.

Politicians can see no further than the next election.

“I guess politicians could justify their actions as a way to cut government,” McMillan said. “There’s no sense paying people to protect the environment if you scrap all the environmental regulations.”

, DataTimes MEMO: You can contact Rich Landers by voice mail at 459-5577, extension 5508.

You can contact Rich Landers by voice mail at 459-5577, extension 5508.

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