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Trump's move to redefine water rule threatens wetlands banks

GAINESVILLE — A private firm is making big money selling promises about some gator-infested Florida swampland.

The Panther Island Mitigation Bank isn't another land boondoggle, but part of a federal system designed to restore wetlands across the United States. Panther Island's owners preserved one of the nation's last stands of virgin bald cypress, 4 square miles (10 square kilometers) on the western edge of the Everglades where they cleared away invasive plants and welcomed back wood storks, otters and other native flora and fauna.

Banks like this sell "wetlands mitigation credits" to developers for up to $300,000 apiece, offsetting the destruction of marshes by construction projects elsewhere. It's a billion-dollar industry that has slowed the loss of U.S. wetlands, half of which are already gone.

This uniquely American mix of conservation and capitalism has been supported by every president since George H.W. Bush pledged a goal of "no net loss" of wetlands, growing a market for mitigation credits from about 40 banks in the early 1990s to nearly 1,500 today. Investors include Chevron and Wall Street firms, working alongside the Audubon Society and other environmental groups.

Now the market is at risk.

Administrator Scott Pruitt's Environmental Protection Agency has completed a proposal for implementing President Donald Trump's executive order to replace the Waters of the United States rule, or WOTUS, with a much more limited definition of what constitutes a protected federal waterway.