New Jersey Wetlands Endangered If Bush Administration Restricts Definition, Many Acres Could Be Lost to Development. ENVIRONMENTAL WATCH

Article excerpt

AMTRAK passengers heading west from New York City are often surprised to find they are suddenly surrounded by wetlands in an otherwise dense urban development area just east of Newark.

The state of New Jersey has what some experts consider the strongest freshwater wetlands protection law in the nation. Yet environmentalists here say it takes constant monitoring to keep the law tough and the bulldozers out. Shrinking acreage

Development pressure is strong and growing. An estimated two-thirds of the original wetlands acreage in the Hackensack Meadowlands, for instance, the area visible from the Amtrak windows, has already been lost, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). By conservative estimates, the US itself loses some 200,000 acres of wetlands each year.

The struggle to preserve more of New Jersey's wetlands takes on added significance when viewed against the backdrop of the strong political fight now under way in Washington to tighten the federal definition of wetlands.

President Bush vowed during his 1988 campaign there would be "no net loss" in US wetlands. Yet under strong pressure from farmers and developers, the Bush administration is now considering a newly restrictive definition of wetlands, stipulating that they include more water, that it be closer to the surface and visible for over a longer period of time than previously required.

Many New Jersey environmentalists and state officials have written in protest to the administration. Among them is Gov. James Florio who just last week proposed a water-quality bond issue that would set aside $100 million to preserve open space along waterways. If approved by the New Jersey Legislature, it would go on the ballot in November.

If Washington's definition of wetlands is narrowed, most of the forested areas of New Jersey would no longer qualify because the state relies on the federal wetlands description, says Abigail Fair, coordinator of the New Jersey Freshwater Wetlands Campaign.

That broad coalition is largely responsible for the state's strong 1987 wetlands law calling for a 150-foot buffer between wetlands and any development.

Ms. Fair says she thinks any change in Washington could also spur efforts to weaken New Jersey's law and confuse the state's current $4 million effort, almost finished, to map the location of its wetlands.

"We need (a strong) national law to help us preserve what we've got," insists Ed Lloyd, director of the Rutgers Environmental Law Clinic in Newark.

New Jersey environmentalists also face ample challenges on the home front. The tough state law suffered a sharp setback last December when New Jersey Attorney General Robert Del Tufo issued a ruling exempting from wetlands protection developer proposals submitted before a certain date for subdivision or site-plan approval. …