“No Net Loss”: Instrument Choice
in Wetlands Protection
James Salzman & J. B. Ruhl
Since European settlement, the continental United States has lost roughly half of its wetlands through drainage, conversion, and erosion.1 Much of this destruction has occurred over the past five decades, with annual losses of almost 60, 000 acres of wetlands occurring just six years ago.2 Beyond the aesthetic loss, this has resulted in real economic loss. Wetlands provide a range of ecosystem services, from trapping nutrients and sediments, water purification, and groundwater recharge, to flood control and support of bird, fish, and mammal populations. Although not sold in markets, all of these services have real value. Often, however, their value is only realized after the wetlands have been destroyed—when property owners survey their flooded homes or face a large tax increase to pay for a new water plant to treat polluted drinking water. Opinions may differ over the value of a wetland's scenic vista, but they are in universal accord over the contributions of clean water and flood control to social welfare.
Though it is not a high-priority issue for most people, the public has long recognized the general importance of wetlands. During President George H. W. Bush's campaign in 1988, he pledged to ensure there would be “no net loss” of wetlands. President Clinton reiterated this commitment in his own campaign four years later. In its National Wetlands Mitigation Action Plan issued in December 2002, President George W. Bush's administration stated its commitment to no net loss of wetlands.3
Despite these continuous presidential pledges to protect wetlands, in recent decades, as more people have moved to coastal and waterside properties, the economic benefits from developing wetlands (and political pressures on obstacles to development) have significantly increased.