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.