WETLANDS, which help preserve and protect the nation's natural environment, could lie only one vote away from wholesale destruction now that the U.S. Supreme Court has delivered a fractured ruling on their legal status.
While the high court finally came down 5-4 on the side of continued wetlands protection under federal law, its message was decidedly a mixed one: five separate opinions emanated from the nine justices.
The decision did not even resolve two cases before the court, both from Michigan, in which developers were restricted under the federal Clean Water Act from erecting a shopping mall in Midland County and condominiums in Macomb County on wetlands property.
Instead, the court sparred in shortsighted fashion over whether wetlands must be connected to "navigable waters" to enjoy protection and sent those cases back to lower courts for further deliberation. In all likelihood, that means several more years of administrative uncertainty and litigation.
In addition to not resolving the legalities, the court missed an opportunity to deliver what is needed most: coherent recognition of the protective role wetlands play in our ecology, as well as an accurate statement of why their careful preservation benefits everyone, including those who build homes, shopping centers, and other developments.
To begin with, regulation of wetlands is not simply, in the sarcastic words of a lawyer for one of the developers, controlling the use of "every pond, puddle, and ditch in our country."
Wetlands, under the definition used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, are "areas where water covers the soil, or is present either at or near the surface of the soil all year or for varying periods of time during the year, including during the growing season."
In the United States, these are found in some form in every locality and climate and generally include marshes, swamps, bogs, and fens, identified by the EPA as freshwater lowlands covered by grasses, sedges, reeds, and wildflowers.
Wetlands typically are characterized by ecologists as acting like a sponge to retard flooding, filter out pollution, and create habitat for wildlife. Scientists also say that wetlands temper the effects of climate change by storing carbon in plants and soil instead of releasing it into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.
In that context, it's easier to understand why wetlands are important to the population at large, how they help to moderate the environment and make it more habitable.
It's not too simplistic to note that one of the reasons flooding was so serious in Toledo neighborhoods during last week's torrential rain was because much of the metropolitan area's wetlands have been long since paved over. And it's not alarmist to note that this country loses some 60,000 acres of wetlands every year.
If the fate of wetlands ultimately is turned over to the discretion of homebuilders, developers, ranchers, and similar interests, the losers in the long run will be the American people and the complex, integrated, and somewhat fragile ecosystem that sustains us.
The wetlands controversy cries out for clarification and further protection by Congress. It is too important to be left to a single vote on the Supreme Court.