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The government says the country has finally reached a long sought after goal, there are now more wetlands in the United States than there were a few years ago. As NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports, not everyone agrees with the new wetlands tally.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN, reporting:

When the Federal Fish and Wildlife Service first started charting the nation's wetlands in the 1950s, the country was losing about a half a million acres of swamps and marshes a year. That's about the size of Rhode Island. Those losses slowed in recent decades, and this morning Interior Secretary Gayle Norton released a new report that she says shows the trend has been reversed.

Ms. GAYLE NORTON (Interior Secretary): For the first time since we began to collect data in 1954, wetland gains have outdistanced wetland losses.

SHOGREN: She says there were almost 200,000 more acres of wetlands in 2004 than there were six years earlier. Government scientists say they know that because they looked at satellite and aerial images and visited thousands of places.

But some environmental groups and hunting organizations say this report's misleading. That's because it counts things like ponds, golf course water traps, and reservoirs as wetlands. If ponds weren't included, the nation would still be losing wetlands.

Pat Megonigal is a wetlands scientist at the Smithsonian's Environmental Research Center. He says the nation loses something when it trades a natural wetland for an artificial pond. To demonstrate, Megonigal took me to a new housing development in Edgewater, Maryland, near the Chesapeake Bay. We stood on a berm. On one side there was a natural wetland full of trees and shrubs. On the other, a pond. Developers built it to hold storm water runoff from the new subdivision.

Dr. PATRICK MEGONIGAL (Wetlands Scientist, Smithsonian Environmental Research Center): It's a good place to make the point that not all wetlands are created equal. And we're losing, in many cases, highly functioning, high quality wetlands and replacing them with lower functioning, lower quality wetlands.

SHOGREN: Megonigal says both the wetland the pond do the things that make wetlands so valuable, they boy filter pollution, they both reduce flooding, and they provide habitat for wildlife. But as we walk into the forest, he says the wetland does those things much better.

Dr. MEGONIGAL: See the raccoon prints?

SHOGREN: A lot more plants and animals make their homes here, and the soil chemistry and the plant life in wetlands make them much better at cleaning water.

Dr. MEGONIGAL: When the water flows through here, even the smallest particles, the clays, stick to the surfaces of stems and to the leaf litter that's laying here on the forest floor. And so that's one reason that this forest is more efficient at removing pollutants from water than the pond.

SHOGREN: In the pond, much of the pollution stays suspended in the water.

Dr. MEGONIGAL: And so if there's a big rainstorm, those pollutants in the water actually get flushed out of the pond and end up in our waterways. That doesn't happen in the forested system.

SHOGREN: Federal officials agree that wetland quality is important, but the Interior Department's Matthew Hogan says the survey isn't designed to evaluate that.

Mr. MATTHEW HOGAN (Deputy Assistant Secretary, Interior Department): We've never asked this report to tell us every single acre out there and what the quality is. It just says, overall in the landscape we've seen a net increase in wetlands.

SHOGREN: Officials also concede this report isn't up to date. It doesn't include the loss of wetlands around the Gulf Coast from hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Early estimates put those losses at about 100 square miles. According to the government's report, that's twice the amount of wetlands the country's been gaining each year.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

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