New Rule Lets Builders ‘Bank’ Efforts to Restore Wetlands

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Bush administration announced requirements on Monday to encourage builders to compensate for destroying wetlands or streams by paying to restore or create wetlands elsewhere.

The approach, which emphasizes linking losing and replacing wetlands across broad watersheds, has been contentious since it was proposed two years ago.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers announced final approval of the rule, saying it would help replace wetlands and streams.

“It will accelerate our wetlands conservation effort by establishing a more effective, consistent mitigation process,” said Benjamin H. Grumbles, assistant administrator for water at the environmental agency.

The regulation encourages expanded “mitigation banking,” in which a developer can obtain a permit to destroy a wetland or stream if the developer agrees to invest in creating or enhancing wetland elsewhere. That approach has resulted in new businesses specializing in wetland creation.

Although the regulation establishes standards for lost wetlands, it emphasizes a preference to “bank” alternative wetlands.

Environmentalists worried that the policy could encourage wetlands destruction and overall loss.

“There’s nothing in here that says we’re going to improve mitigation,” Julie Sibbing, a wetlands expert at the National Wildlife Federation, said. “It’s just going to be easier and cheaper. And the cheaper it is to mitigate, the more economic it is to buy land that has wetlands on it and destroy them.”

Ms. Sibbing said that mitigation banking was already being used, but that the new rule would make it difficult to argue that a developer should be required to provide on-site preservation.

A wetland often is important to a local ecosystem, and “it doesn’t help to move it 100 miles away,” Ms. Sibbing said.

With the new rule, the business of creating alternative wetlands is likely to prosper. George Howard, who owns a business in that field near Raleigh, N.C., said “the vast amount” of alternative wetlands involved not creating wetlands, but restoring lost wetlands.

The environmental agency and the corps said the rules would increase public participation.