The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has approved a new Maryland wetlands program intended to speed up the review of permits for activities affecting less than five acres of nontidal wetlands or three acres of tidal wetlands.

The corps announced June 18 that it had approved a "programmatic general permit" which will give the state the principal responsibility for handling most permit applications in Maryland.

Previously, anyone planning activities that would fill or alter small wetland tracts had to get permits approved by separate federal and state agencies.

Activities that would result in significant environmental impact, or affect more than five acres of nontidal or three acres of tidal wetlands, will still require joint state and federal review.

"The new program will streamline the permitting process, but it will not roll back environmental standards," said Jane Nishida, secretary of the Maryland Department of the Environment. "In many instances, the state will provide greater protection for Maryland's precious wetland resources."

Overall, the change should speed up the processing of the roughly 4,000 wetland permit applications handled each year. Most permits now are processed between 30 and 90 days, according to MDE.

By reducing duplicative efforts, the agencies say their staffs will have more time to better oversee wetland mitigation and restoration; develop better wetland management programs that will improve watershed planning; expand training; and assess impacts of wetland loss.

"This will reduce administrative overlap and protect the environment," said Col. Randall Inouye, Baltimore district engineer for the Army Corps of Engineers. "What we've done here is streamline the process. In most cases, these permits will be processed quickly."

While the change gives the state the primary responsibility for reviewing most wetland permit applications in Maryland, the corps maintains authority to evaluate individual projects if it believes the state has not taken adequate measures to protect the environment. Also, the corps may modify or revoke all or part of the authority granted the state under the programmatic general permit if it believes the state is not doing an adequate job.

Other federal agencies, such as the EPA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, will still be able to review all permit applications.

Environmentalists welcomed the efforts to simplify the process, but have some concerns about the agreement, said Dru Schmidt-Perkins of Clean Water Action.

"Some parts of it probably are better than the existing system," she said. "We are certainly encouraged that there is a streamlining and lack of duplication."

But she said environmental groups are worried that the new system will limit the ability of citizens to participate in the process and file suits.

To allow for such input, the MDE plans to provide public notices about permit applications earlier in the review process through a joint state/federal public notice. The public notice will be distributed in a mailing list developed through the combination of existing corps and MDE lists.

Anyone may request to be placed on the "Interested Persons List" at any time.

In addition, after the receipt of a complete application, the state will provide public notice and the opportunity for a public information hearing.

Maryland has lost between 40 percent and 70 percent of its wetlands since Colonial times, but still has more than 600,000 acres of wetlands.

Wetlands help to filter runoff from the land before it reaches rivers and streams. Because they absorb water, wetlands reduce flooding and replenish groundwater supplies. They also provide important habitat for many species.