Legislation that would strengthen and clarify the federal government's wetlands protection program has been introduced in Congress by a Maryland lawmaker.

Wetland regulation has been an increasingly controversial issue in Congress in recent years, with about 75 bills being introduced annually to either strengthen or weaken federal wetland regulatory programs.

The issue is likely to gain more attention next year when Congress may consider the long-overdue reauthorization of the Clean Water Act; and Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-MD, said he hoped his Wetlands and Watershed Management Act of 1997 would help frame debate on the issue.

"In the United States, we've lost more than half of our original wetlands," Gilchrest said. "As Congress begins to review our national wetlands policy, I hope this legislation will serve as a starting point for a balanced approach to protecting this critical resource, and one that is based on sound science."

The Clean Water Act is the basis for most federal wetland regulations, but much of the interpretation of the wetlands portion of the law has stemmed from regulatory actions and court decisions.

"Our current wetlands policy has been riddled with court battles and controversy over what Congress intended 25 years ago," Gilchrest said.

"Most of our wetlands regulations have been based on interpretation by federal agencies and courts of a very small section of law. This bill will provide a clear, complete statutory basis for wetlands protection."

For example, the Clean Water Act regulates "navigable waters" and the bill would clearly add "wetlands" to the definition of navigable waters. Also, federal regulations deal with dredging and filling, but not other actions that destroy wetlands. A federal court recently blocked an attempt to expand regulatory efforts to further protect wetlands by preventing such activities as ditching wetlands. Gilchrest's bill would expand regulatory power to include such alterations as clearing, draining and excavating wetlands.

The bill would require the government to begin a permit tracking and monitoring program to assess the cumulative impacts of multiple permits issued in a given area.

It would also tighten the requirements for issuing "general permits" that grant permission to alter a wetland with little or no regulatory review.

The legislation would provide incentives for watershed management and planning, including technical and financial assistance to private landowners and expedited permit review for watersheds under comprehensive management.

Gilchrest is a senior member of the House Water Resources and Environ-ment Subcommittee, where a House version of any Clean Water Act reauthorization bill would originate. The act has not been reauthorized in nearly a decade, and may come up for review next year.

Gilchrest and subcommittee chairman Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-NY - who represents the northern tip of the Bay watershed - played an important role in opposing a Clean Water Act rewrite attempt in 1995 which was widely seen as weakening wetland and clean water protections.

"We've learned a lot over the last 25 years about why wetlands are so critically important," Gilchrest said. "This is our opportunity to incorporate that knowledge into our national wetlands policy. In Maryland, we've lost 73 percent of our wetlands since our state was first settled, and we can't afford to lose any more."