WASHINGTON – An estimated 117,000 acres of U.S. wetlands have been destroyed annually in recent years, but the rate of loss is slowing, the government reported Wednesday.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is encouraged by the numbers, but environmentalists say the progress is not enough.
The report, which will be presented to Congress in November, projects the average wetlands loss from 1985-1995 was 60 percent less than the previous 10-year period.
Jamie Rappaport Clark, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, said the national goal is to have no net loss of wetlands by curbing the destruction and replacing lost wetlands.
“We are clearly on our way to attain our goal of no net loss,” Clark said.
But environmentalists said the progress is too slow.
“It’s terrible that we’re continuing to lose wetlands at that rate,” said Michael Schultz, spokesman for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. He called the wetlands situation a “national tragedy.”
Wetlands have proven to be important filters of water pollution, vital habitat for fish and water fowl and protection against flooding.
“Wetlands serve an invaluable service in the natural scheme of things,” Schultz said.
Jeff Bocan, program assistant of the Sierra Club, said the numbers released in the federal report were higher than his organization had originally believed.
“We were going around saying that about 90,000 acres of wetlands were being destroyed per year,” he said. “I’m shocked and amazed at these new numbers.”
Bocan’s biggest problem lies with the ease in which wetlands can be destroyed.
“Only a handful of permits to destroy wetlands are denied each year,” he said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service pointed to increased public awareness and conservation, implementation of the Clean Water Act and expansion of federal, state and local wetland restoration programs as reasons for the decline of loss rates.
The Northeast region, which includes an area east of the Mississippi River and north of Virginia, accounts for 20 percent of the acreage lost per year – the smallest percentage of the three regions studied.
“The Northeastern corridor of states has been really good in achieving a low rate of loss and has achieved some gains,” said Thomas Dahl, a Fish and Wildlife Service scientist.