THE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPORTANCE OF wetlands has been known for decades, but it was only last November that the federal government finally set a goal of stopping the loss of swamps, salt marshes and seasonally flooded forests. Last week, environmentalists claimed that President Bush's chief of staff, John Sununu, had engineered an enormous loophole in that new policy. While conservationists have historic reasons for such a fear, a measure of good faith is in order.

When the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, there were about 200 million acres of wetlands in what is now the continental United States. Less than half that amount remains, covering about 5 percent of the nation's land area. In states like California and Iowa, over 90 percent of all wetland areas have been destroyed. The importance of wetlands for wildlife habitat, flood control, water supply and forestry has made wetlands protection a controversial issue.But the filling of wetlands has been regulated poorly. Section 404 of the Clean Water Act of 1972 requires those who would dredge or fill wetlands to obtain permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but agricultural activities, the major source of danger to wetlands, are exempt. In 1987, frustrated by inconsistencies in enforcement and alarmed at the continuing loss of hundreds of thousands of acres a year, Lee Thomas, Environmental Protection Agency administrator, asked the Conservation Foundation to bring agricultural, industrial, environmental and regulatory interests together to solve the problem.

The result was a Nov. 15, 1989, memo of agreement between the EPA and the Corps establishing no net loss of wetlands as the government's aim. To do that, the agencies agreed to attempt to avoid destruction of wetlands wherever possible, and to require that damaged wetlands be restored or replaced when destruction is unavoidable.

That agreement threw oil and mineral exploration in much of Alaska, including the oil-rich North Slope, into question. The technology for restoring wetlands is in its infancy, and adding new wetlands in some parts of Alaska would be difficult. Pressure from Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, led Mr. Sununu to allow regulators to disregard the no-net-loss goal when the restoration or creation of new wetlands is "not practicable."

Conservationists have hailed this semantic shift as a step backward. Indeed, a general use of the loophole could lead to abuse of the law.

But even environmental groups admit that over the past year, the Corps of Engineers and the EPA have worked together well to protect wetlands. They should accept the Corps' pledge of good faith - and focus their efforts on the farmers who, in most states, continue to plow up wetlands with almost no regulatory limits at all.

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