More drains for pothole country?

  In South Dakota, soil conservation officials and environmental groups are facing off over how to define a wetland.

Under the 1985 "Swampbusters' Farm Bill, farmers who drain wetlands can't qualify for federal farm subsidies. But states do the certifying of farmers for Swampbusters compliance, and last May, the South Dakota office of the Natural Resource Conservation Service announced a new procedure for identifying wetlands - one that loosens the process.

Michael Held of the South Dakota Farm Bureau says the change will level the economic playing field for South Dakota farmers, who compete with growers in states that have already developed less stringent regulations.

Instead of defining a wetland as an area that has water-filled soils and is sometimes swampy, NRCS proposes to do a fly-over during the month of September, when many seasonally wet areas aren't distinguishable from the air.

But Luanne Napton of the South Dakota Resource Council says the timing of the aerial survey could spell destruction for 750,000 of South Dakota's 2 million acres of wetlands. "It's cheating the taxpayer," she says. "We're supposed to be paying (NRCS) to protect the wetlands."

The Resource Council filed a lawsuit challenging the policy change last year; now, a temporary restraining order prevents its implementation until the suit is settled.

* Ali Macalady

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