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The quality of life depends not just on a clean environment but also on a healthy economy.

That obvious but often-neglected point needs to be kept firmly in mind as Washington revises some of the rules and regulations governing this nation's wetlands.The proposed changes were discussed this week in Ogden during a meeting between local officials, landowners, and Rep. Jim Hansen, who noted that few domestic issues have generated more complaints across the nation than wetlands.

In 1989 the federal government issued its guidelines for defining wetlands, areas which often serve crucial ecological purposes such as filtering water runoff, controlling floods and providing habitats to wildlife. Some business groups objected to the guidelines as too general, granting government over-broad authority in taking private property. The guidelines are now being revised. It is an important debate.

At issue is President Bush's campaign pledge of "no net loss of wetlands." The pledge was laudable, but environmentalists worry it will go the way of another famous Bush promise - the one about new taxes.

Whether there's a net loss of wetlands depends, of course, on how you define a wetland. Environmentalists favor a broad reading, which means that large tracts of privately owned land will suddenly require federal oversight. Many landowners who wish to develop their property claim they're trapped in a "regulatory nightmare" of delays, increased costs, and bureaucratic confusion. (Four federal agencies are involved in wetlands regulation.) Failure to abide by federal wetland edicts can result in fines up to $25,000 a day and three years in prison.

The issue is subject to the abuses of extremists on both sides. Nobody should deny the value of wetlands, and thus the federal government's interest in them. By the same token, regulators and environmentalists must acknowledge property rights and a community's need for development and growth.

Scripps Howard News Service quotes the Environmental Protection Agency as estimating that more than half of the 200 million acres of wetlands once in the United States have been developed. The environmental costs may have been great, but so have the benefits. America's corn belt is grown on former wetlands. Chicago, Houston, and countless other cities are also built on land that would, under some definitions, be classified as wetland.

Over the past several decades Americans have ceded enormous power to their federal government, often with the best intentions but little forethought. Government must therefore exercise its power with discretion. By writing more restrictive wetland definitions, and thus limiting their own power, federal bureaucrats can show they have not entirely forgotten about the sanctity of private property or the benefits of economic growth.