January 9, 2012

Wetlands bill eases development, but worries environmentalists

Republicans in the state Legislature have unveiled a long-awaited bill to revamp state wetlands policy.

The proposal, the subject of a Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism report published in November, would make it easier for developers to infill wetlands in exchange for what’s known as “mitigation,” the creation of new wetlands.

According to the nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau’s bill analysis, the proposed bill “removes the restriction that mitigation may not be considered in issuing permits for discharges” into areas considered to have “significant ecological, cultural, aesthetic, educational, recreational, or scientific value.”

In addition, current law requires developers to consider all “practicable alternatives,” including building at another location, before infilling wetlands. The proposed law would limit the DNR’s review to alternatives that are part of or adjacent to the proposed development site in cases where the proposed project “will have a demonstrable economic benefit,” such as the necessary expansion of an existing industrial or commercial facility.

The bill also establishes new procedures and time limits for issuing wetlands permits.

“While we believe the authors made a good-faith effort to balance competing interests, we are disappointed to report that the bill contains several policy changes that fundamentally weaken wetland protections,” says a statement from the Wisconsin Wetlands Association, a Madison-based nonprofit group that advocates for wetlands preservation.

According to the group, the bill “contains a number of positive provisions that we support; however, the harm that will come vastly outweighs the good.” It has outlined its objections and recommended changes in a memo to lawmakers.

But the proposed changes drew praise from Tom Larson, the chief lobbyist for the Wisconsin Realtors Association, which has been urging changes in state wetlands law. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Larson believes the new rules will increase the use of mitigation.

“The way I would cast this bill is that it has removed a number of barriers,” Larson said.

In the Center’s report, Larson noted that there is sharp disagreement between wetlands advocates and critics of current state policy over whether it is possible to create new high-quality wetlands through mitigation.

“We probably won’t ever agree on that,” he said.

  • Rebecca Katers

    I’m extremely disappointed that the Wisconsin Wetlands Association made such a lame comment about this bill. It’s another example of a “professional” statewide environmental group bending too far and pulling all their punches in a hopeless attempt to influence conservative anti-environmental developers.

    The typical developer doesn’t care about wetland quality or preservation, so it’s pointless to try to reason with them.

    The Wisconsin Wetlands Association should have said plainly that this legislation will GUT wetland protection in Wisconsin, PERIOD.

    The bill will eliminate 50+ years of painstaking, desperate, legislative work by thousands of dedicated Wisconsin researchers, conservationists, environnmentalists, outdoor recreationists, birdwatchers, artists, educators, hunters, trappers, anglers, and boaters. Most of these Wisconsinites weren’t doing this as paid staff for a statewide (non-advocacy) association, or for developers’ profits … they volunteered years of their lives, fighting to protect the last remaining natural wetlands, for the greater statewide public interest and future quality of life.

    Developers won’t be satisfied until every square inch of the state is available for ruining … every inch of lakeshore, streambank, or marsh. Some will claim they’re more “sensitive,” but there are 10 times more who see no point in saving a “swamp,” who feel it’s their God-given right to do anything they want with “their” wetlands. The proof is visible statewide. The Wisconsin landscape is littered with thousands of mushrooming clusters of trashy, ugly construction. It gets worse each year.

    The only defense we have is good zoning regulation (… rare unfortunately…) and state wetland and shoreline regulations. The state shoreline rules were already drastically weakened by the Republicans and Gov. Doyle in the so-called “Jobs Creation Act” six or eight years ago. This new Republican bill will complete that damage.

    (Note: The rushed, secretive “Job Creation Act” legislative effort was led by state senator Cathy Stepp and her Homebuilders’ Association … and now Stepp controls the Wis. Dept. of Natural Resources, as DNR Secretary. I can’t think of a less trustworthy person for that job.)

    If the Republicans succeed, we can all say goodbye to natural wetlands and shorelines on most Wisconsin lakes and rivers.

    Most “mitigation” is junk science, creating junk “wetlands” consisting only of artifical water retention areas with some seeds or plants dropped in. The natural community is absent: missing 100+ years worth of accumulated organic muck soil, with no rare native plants or wildlife, unnatural chemistry, and/or improper water levels or flows. The type of wetland destroyed is NOT replaced by creating new wetlands of equivalent value.

    Worse yet, “mitigation” often means PURCHASING existing wetlands somewhere else (with different qualities and serving different communities), resulting in serious and permanent net losses of wetlands statewide, year after year.

    If you ever write about this again, interview credible independent biologists and wetland researchers on the topic of mitigation. When they comment, be sure they’re not speaking just theoretically about ideal “wetland creation.” Have them critique ACTUAL mitigation projects which would be typical of those required by this legislation.