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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Lawmakers Rewrite their Rewritten Wetlands Rules

(From February 2018)

Wisconsin’s GOP lawmakers have been scrambling since September to rewrite the state’s wetland laws only six years after rewriting them in 2012, which was only 10 years after bipartisan legislators rewrote them in 2002.

They wouldn’t be stumbling through this process, of course, if the governor’s handpicked administrators at the Department of Natural Resources had spent the past six years setting sensible precedents with efficient, common-sense decisions based on 2012’s wetland rules.

Why not start there, rather than reinvent the wheel?

Sheesh. Forehead slap.

We forgot: The Legislature doesn’t need advice from the public’s professional wetlands experts, and DNR administrators won’t let them offer counsel unless key legislators request it. Even then DNR staff won’t say anything publicly if it’s not first OK’d by the governor’s office.

So we’re left with this: After lawmakers stripped regulations on isolated, nonfederal wetlands to hasten approval of the multi-billion dollar Foxconn plan in 2017, some politicians seized the opening. Why not end protections for all 1 million acres of isolated wetlands statewide?

State Senate president Roger Roth, R-Appleton, and Rep. Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, even made a video last fall implying isolated wetlands are mostly low-lying leftover subdivision lots. They implied isolated wetlands simply needed minor landscaping to become building sites, and blamed the DNR for stifling business.

Roth didn’t mention that his family owns a construction company, and Steineke didn’t mention that he’s a realtor and still sells real estate.

Their efforts stalled when groups like Ducks Unlimited, Trout Unlimited and Pheasants Forever; and organizations like the Wisconsin Conservation Congress, Wisconsin Waterfowl Association, Wisconsin Wetlands Association, Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, Green Bay Duck Hunters Association, Wisconsin Trappers Association and National Wild Turkey Federation loudly opposed the deregulation.

The lawmakers then convened group discussions with carefully chosen “stakeholders,” including several conservation groups, to review Wisconsin’s wetland laws. The legislators held a joint hearing Dec. 21 on two bills that largely ignored the conservation groups’ input.

The hearing generated crowds that overflowed the main room and two additional rooms. Most who testified opposed the bills, and attendees who registered aligned 64-16 against them. Even so, Steineke declared the hearing a “great step forward for this incredibly necessary legislation.”

An Assembly panel passed a less aggressive substitute bill from its committee Jan. 30. It would let developers fill some isolated wetlands without DNR permits if the lands were within a mile radius of towns, villages, cities, sewerage areas and sanitary districts. The plan would jeopardize about 100,000 acres of wetlands statewide. Developers also wouldn’t have to replace or mitigate wetlands they fill.

A Senate committee’s substitute bill released Wednesday was less destructive. It reduces the distance around populated areas to a half-mile, and requires mitigation if a developer fills more than 10,000 square feet of wetlands, or roughly a quarter-acre. It also specified more high-quality wetlands for continued protection.

Conservation groups unanimously rejected the Assembly’s plan in recent days, and began analyzing the Senate’s plan after its midweek release. It’s doubtful any group will endorse the Senate plan, but some might remain neutral.

Either way, conservationists would have vehemently opposed either plan had legislators proposed them in September. In effect, lawmakers boxed in conservation groups by leading last fall with their apocalyptic plan to remove protections for those 20 percent of Wisconsin’s 5 million wetland acres not regulated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. By later reducing the amount of vulnerable wetlands from 1 million acres to 100,000 acres, and now possibly less, lawmakers are forcing conservationists to choose which child to sacrifice.

Is that honest, representative government? GOP lawmakers lacked the skills to make the DNR efficiently enforce the party’s 2012 wetlands law, so now they’re trying to scrap those rules and blame it on conservation groups, which Steineke dismissed Monday as “supporters of the status quo.”

Let’s not forget the 2012 law supposedly streamlined the DNR’s regulatory process for wetlands. Lawmakers said we needed those rules, even though the DNR approved 88 percent of 6,513 wetland permits from 2002 to October 2011 after the 2002 wetlands rewrite.

No wonder George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, called the Assembly’s Jan. 30 plan “the worst conservation bill I’ve seen in a generation.”

And no wonder Don Kirby of Freedom, executive director of the Wisconsin Waterfowl Association, thinks conservation groups were used as “window dressing” last fall to review existing wetland laws.

“I’m really disappointed how the process morphed into something where they continually moved the target,” Kirby said. “In October, I believed we were making a difference. We’re not protectionists. We don’t oppose development. We agreed that some of the developers’ requests were common sense, and the DNR didn’t always handle the permit process efficiently. So let’s identify those administrative problems, study them and fix them.

“That’s how businesses make decisions,” Kirby continued. “Things started changing by November. They wanted to speed things along so they could wrap things up. But speed does not make for great lawmaking on complicated issues like this.”

Kirby, 49, has an MBA, managed Gander Mountain stores for 16 years, and helped build many of those stores. “It’s possible to have development and conservation,” he said. “We shouldn’t make people jump through unnecessary hoops. But the problems we need to solve in our current regulations require a spoon, not a shovel.

“Wisconsin has many unique wetlands that make it special,” he continued. “When the bill’s authors say Wisconsin has wetland laws other states don’t have, that’s misdirection. Most of the country’s isolated, nonfederal wetlands are in Wisconsin, Minnesota and the Dakotas. So yeah, states like Kansas don’t need our wetland laws.”

Kirby still hopes lawmakers consider conservationists’ concerns in the weeks ahead. Several hunting, fishing and trapping groups are encouraging members to pick up and display “Sportsmen for Wetlands” bumper stickers at nearly 50 dinners and socials the next month to support wetlands conservation.

“Wisconsin always ranks in the top three to five states for waterfowl hunting,” Kirby said. “Waterfowling is one area where we aren’t losing hunters. But whether you hunt or not, we have to protect wetlands.

“Unregulated development makes everyone pay down the road,” he continued. “I’m concerned there is too much political compromise in the works, and not enough concern for the environmental consequences.”

Wisconsin is home to some of the United States’ most diverse and valuable wetlands, which provide essential habitat for wildlife and waterfowl such as these trumpeter swans. (Patrick Durkin photo)

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