Federal Legislation

Before scientists formally identified the values of wetland ecosystems, U.S. policies (as far back as 1849) legalized draining of wetlands. It wasn't until the 1970s, after more than half of the original wetlands in the landlocked 48 states had already been drained, that protective legislation emerged.

Although there is no specific national law stating the ecological importance of the nation's wetlands, wetlands are protected by land use and water quality legislation.

A call to protect wetlands

National wetlands protection was sent in motion when President Jimmy Carter issued two executive orders in 1977 that established wetland policies for all federal agencies. Executive Order 11990, Protection of Wetlands, required all federal agencies to "take action to minimize the destruction, loss or degradation of wetlands and enhance the natural and beneficial values of wetlands" while carrying out their responsibilities. Executive Order 11998, Floodplain Management, required similar protection for floodplains, including avoiding activity in the floodplain when possible.

The Clean Water Act

The primary wetland protection across the U.S. is the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1972, (amended in 1977 and commonly referred to as the Clean Water Act). Section 404 of the Act states that a permit is required for most activities that would dredge or fill any of the nations waters, including wetlands. Certain farming, ranching and forestry activities that do not alter the use of land, as well as some construction and maintenance activities are exempt from permit requirements. Also, in accordance with Section 404, each time a wetland area is destroyed, it must be mitigated for (replaced through the creation or enhancement of another wetland). The Act is enforced on both Federal and state levels.

In 2002, the Supreme Court limited the act's jurisdiction over isolated wetlands, and on January 10, 2003, President Bush called for the redefinition of wetlands. Bush is looking to clarify whether isolated, non-navigable wetlands should be protected by the Act.

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No Net Loss

"No Net Loss," a recent cornerstone in wetlands conservation, traces its roots to a 1987 National Wetlands Policy Forum. The forum aimed to "achieve no overall net loss of the nation's remaining wetlands base and to create and restore wetlands, where feasible, to increase the quantity and quality of the nation's wetland resource base." (National Wetlands Policy Forum, 1988).

Increasing the quality and quantity of wetlands

On Earth Day 2004, President George W. Bush established a goal to increase in the quality and quantity of wetlands in America. President Bush described his goal for expanding wetland acreage as both creating new wetlands and improving the
quality of existing wetlands. The President also required that we protect existing, high-quality wetlands. His goal is that we achieve at least one million acres in each of these separate categories between Earth Day 2004 and 2009.

Related Links

Federal wetlands legislation through 2000

Directive or Statute


Responsible Federal Agency

Rivers and Harbors Act, section 10


U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Migratory Bird Conservation Act



Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act



Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act


U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Land and Water Conservation Act


U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, National Park Service

National Environmental Policy Act


Council on Environmental Quality

Federal Water Pollution Control Act, (amended to become the Clean Water Act)

Section 208 - water quality planning

Section 303 - water quality standards

Section 401 - water quality certification

Section 402 - pollution discharge elimination system

Section 404 - dredge and fill permits

1972, 1977, 1982

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with assistance from Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Coastal Zone Management Act


Office of Coastal Management, Department of Commerce

Flood Disaster Protection Act

1973, 1977

Federal Emergency Management Agency

Federal Aid to Wildlife Restoration Act


U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Water Resources Development Act

1976, 1990

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Executive Order 11990 - Protection of Wetlands


All agencies

Executive Order 11988 - Floodplain Management


All agencies

Food Security Act


Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service

Emergency Wetland Resources Act


U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Executive Order 12630 - Constitutional Protected Property Rights


All agencies

Wetlands Delineation Manual


All agencies

"No Net Loss" Policy


All agencies

North American Wetlands Conservation Act


U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act


U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Wetlands Reserve Program


Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Services

Executive Order 12962 - Conservation of Aquatic Systems for Recreational Fisheries


All agencies

Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act


Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service

Table: Major federal laws, directives and regulations in the United States used for the management and protection of wetlands.

Mitsch, William J., and Gosselink, James G. Wetlands. John Wiley and Sons, 2000. New York .