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Minnesota Graphic Minnesota Wetland Report

XI. NATIONAL VIEWPOINT: Enumerating Wetlands

Status of Open Recommendations FY 98 Wetlands Overview - Problems with Acreage Data Persists. Excerpted from a letter report (RCED-98-150; 07/01/98) by the U.S. General Accounting Office. The complete report can be viewed at www.gao.gov/.

At least 36 federal agencies, to varying degrees, conducted wetland-related activities during fiscal years 1990 through 1997. These activities included acquiring, regulating, restoring, enhancing, mapping, inventorying, delineating, and conducting research relating to wetlands. Six agencies—the Army Corps of Engineers, the Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service, the Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency—were the primary agencies involved in and responsible for implementing wetlands-related programs.

These six agencies accounted for more than 70 percent of the funding and 65 percent of the staffing associated each year with such activities. The total funding associated each year with the agencies’ efforts ranged from about $508 million in fiscal year (FY)1990 to about $787 million in FY1997.  Staffing associated with the agencies’ activities during this period ranged from about 3,271 full-time-equivalent staff-years in FY1993 to about 4,308 full-time-equivalent staff-years in FY1997.

The consistency and reliability of wetlands acreage data reported by the federal agencies are questionable. Although resource inventories maintained by the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service have both reported that the rate of wetland loss has declined, the inventories’ estimates are not completely consistent. Consequently, a single set of wetland acreage numbers that could be used to evaluate the progress made in achieving the goal of “no net loss” of the nation’s remaining wetlands is unavailable. In addition, officials from each of the agencies have questioned the estimates made by the other. Officials from the Environmental Protection Agency have expressed concern about the estimate of both inventories. 

Inconsistent use of terms such as protection, restoration, rehabilitation, improvement, enhancement, and creation clouds the description and reporting of wetlands-related activities across federal agencies.  Non-wetland acres such as adjacent uplands are often included in reporting accomplishments. Program officials at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service North American Wetlands Conservation Program have estimated that about 75 percent of habitat restoration project acres are uplands.  Adding to these reporting problems is double counting when federal and state agencies and private conservation organizations are involved in joint projects.

In May 1998, the administration issued a plan to accomplish a key action: improve the consistency and reliability of wetland acreage data. To ensure this, the secretary of agriculture and the secretary of the interior, in consultation with the chair of the White House Wetlands Working Group, should develop and implement a strategy for ensuring that all actions contained in the Clean Water Action Plan relating to wetlands data are adopted government-wide. A primary effort should be to develop a single set of accurate, reliable figures on the status and trends of the nation’s wetlands. In addition to this ongoing effort, consistent, understandable definitions and reporting standards should be developed for federal agencies to use in reporting their wetlands-related activities and the changes to wetlands that result from such activities.

Actions to improve wetlands data include completing a plan to produce a single status and trends report by the year 2000, a peer review panel to evaluate a plan to track annual changes in the nation’s smaller wetlands, technical guidance on restoration, enhancement, and creation, and an interagency tracking system. Although the plan has been completed, many of the steps required for its success have not. As of June 10, 1998, details have not yet been developed on how the actions announced by the administration will be accomplished.

A long-term commitment and considerable time and effort from the agencies are crucial to the successful implementation of this effort. Without consistent and reliable wetland acreage data, decision makers (the Congress and the administration) will be hampered in their ability to make sound decisions about necessary adjustments to federal wetlands policies and programs that would allow the nation’s wetlands goals to be achieved.

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