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Top Five Reasons to Oppose the Wetland Destruction Bill

Oct 26, 2017

A bill in the Wisconsin state legislature is drawing criticism from conservation leaders and sporting groups. AB 547 (LRB 4115 & 4410) would make it easier to build on wetlands that aren’t connected to navigable waters—nonfederal wetlands—which could result in a loss of an estimated one million acres of wetlands.

Wisconsin’s 5.5 million acres of wetlands are diverse and it isn’t just the ones that are directly connected to rivers and lakes that are valuable. Wisconsin is a water-rich state and some of the 20 percent of wetlands that are defined as isolated can still be headwaters of our streams and rivers, provide fish and wildlife habitat, and help with flood management. That’s why the state legislature acted quickly and unanimously to pass legislation in 2001 to ensure the DNR’s authority to protect our isolated wetlands when federal actions put them at risk.

Wisconsin sporting groups are widely opposed to this legislation that would roll back wetland protections. In a joint statement by Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, the Wisconsin Conservation Congress, Wisconsin Trappers Association, Wisconsin Waterfowl Association and the Wisconsin Wildlife Association, the groups said:

“The proposed bill is extremely damaging to the hunting, fishing and trapping community and the above sportsmen’s organizations call on the Legislature to engage sportsmen and women, other stakeholders and the Department of Natural Resources prior to developing legislation affecting Wisconsin’s valuable wetlands. The groups stand ready to assist in the development of legislation dealing with specific wetland regulatory problems but remain steadfast to protecting Wisconsin’s valuable nonfederal wetlands.’

Here are some reasons why we think Wisconsinites should oppose the bill, scrutinize promises of mitigation – or replacing – wetlands, and ask for more support for DNR staff, not budget cuts and less scientific autonomy. 

Top Five Reasons to Oppose the Wetland Destruction Bill

Nonfederal wetlands are not clearly defined. DNR estimates that about 20% of Wisconsin’s wetlands, or about one million acres, are nonfederal wetlands. But the definition of federal vs. nonfederal wetlands is not at all clear. This question turns on whether the wetlands are considered “Waters of the U.S.” as that term is used in the federal Clean Water Act. And the reach of that term—WOTUS—has been hotly debated and litigated for decades. Recently, the Obama administration better defined the waters included in the term Waters of the U.S. after extensive scientific study and input. But now that certainty has been unsettled by the Trump administration’s proposal to repeal this rule. So the truth is that we don’t really know how many acres of Wisconsin’s wetlands are at risk. Why would legislators threaten Wisconsin’s waters by adopting the conflict and uncertainty around the definition of federal wetlands?

The legislature unanimously passed a law in 2001 to protect ALL wetlands in Wisconsin and rejected the uncertainty of the federal law. Republican and democratic legislators all agreed just 16 years ago that Wisconsin was not going to put our valuable wetland resources at risk by limiting protections to federal wetlands. Wisconsin legislators took this action in response to several U.S. Supreme Court decisions that narrowed the definition of federal wetlands. These legislators recognized the need for regulatory certainty and the value that wetlands provide.

Nonfederal and artificial wetlands provide valuable ecosystem services such as flood control and water quality protection. Even “isolated” wetlands that are clearly nonfederal wetlands are connected in some way to groundwater and other surface waters. All wetlands, including nonfederal and artificial wetlands, have critical flood storage capacity that we cannot afford to lose as we experience large rain events more often and as development pressures increase. Similarly, wetlands play a large role in replenishing groundwater aquifers and filtering pollutants out of surface waters. If legislators are truly concerned about protecting property rights and existing development, they should strengthen, not weaken, wetland protections.

Mitigation—creating or restoring wetlands to replace destroyed wetlands—is not a good tradeoff for protecting existing wetlands. While mitigation is a critical component of the wetland regulatory program, it’s not enough by itself to give a green light to develop wetlands. Regulators have used mitigation for decades as part of the permitting program and experience shows that it is hard to get it right, and mitigation attempts often fail. Legislators who suggest that mitigation is an easy replacement for the wetland destruction that will result from this bill are engaging in a bait and switch, and we shouldn’t fall for it.

This bill overburdens our underfunded and understaffed DNR while removing federal protections. In addition to removing protections for nonfederal and artificial wetlands, this bill would authorize DNR to take control of permitting for federal wetlands. That would eliminate the need for those filling wetlands in Wisconsin from obtaining a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. DNR certainly has a knowledgeable and experienced staff of wetland experts, but they are already overburdened. This bill tells DNR to do more, but does not give DNR additional staff or resources to get the job done.