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T HE NATION'S wetlands have important ecological value and should be protected. Each year, some of this resource is lost to development, leaving water-loving animals and plants with less territory and wreaking havoc with natural drainage.

But common sense is offended by a definition of "wetland" that is so inclusive that it takes in up to 90 percent of Niagara County and more than half of Erie County.

New policies -- or new applications of old policies -- could expand the term that far, subjecting these big chunks of the Niagara Frontier to additional state and federal rules. It is easy to see why the situation is raising havoc with land owners.

Most people agree on applying the word "wetland" to obvious marshes and swamps. These seem easy to identify: Water birds land in them; cattails and other water-loving plants grow in them; a walk through them for many months of the year is virtually impossible.

But how much further can the word "wetland" fairly be applied? It seems clear that the line over into absurdity is in danger of being crossed by the new regulations.

There is also no shortage of confusion in the way Albany and Washington are now applying their separate wetland policies.

Developers claim, with some justification, that the rules have suddenly shifted without warning, and that projects that had local approval are now snagged in long delays caused by new, additional reviews by an understaffed regional office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

It is under a new federal policy that up to 90 percent of Niagara County and over half of Erie might fall under wetland regulations.

But proposed changes in state regulations take in a lot of territory, too. State Sen. John B. Daly, R-Lewiston, said the Department of Environmental Conservation's pro posed rules could expand the amount of regulated land in Niagara County from the present 5 percent to 65 percent.

Amid the resentment and confusion all this brings about, it's time to look at basics.

There should be clear agreement on a definition of wetlands. Albany and Washington cannot regulate what they cannot define, and developers cannot comply with regulations and definitions they cannot understand or that keep shifting.

The definition should make sense. The federal law itself, or the regulations flowing from that law, appear to go too far. Rep. Henry Nowak, D-Buffalo, plans hearings on them next year. That's a good idea. They are needed.

The DEC should hold its fire on sweeping new proposals, even if they are designed to bring state law into line with federal law. If federal law is basically okay, there's no urgent need for the state to duplicate it. If federal law should be revised, why copy it?

In the meantime, regulators should apply the law with reason and tolerance, especially concerning developers and others that secured local approval before the changes in regulatory policy occurred or became known to the public.

In addition to these basics, the Buffalo regional office of the Army Corps of Engineers must accelerate its handling of a backlog of applications that have already been filed by developers.

Much of the current difficulty stems from the best of intentions: The Bush administration has begun to seriously enforce a policy of "no net loss" of wetlands through the procedures by which the Army Corps of Engineers approves land uses.

But somehow, we in Western New York don't feel as waterlogged as the Corps seems to find us.

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