For more than a century, Wisconsin has been at the heart of a long debate between builders who want to develop the land and conservationists who want to preserve it. Out of those lively discussions has come a rough balance of interests and an understanding that the state needs development to continue to grow economically but also needs to honor and protect its unique environmental heritage—the rivers, streams and lakes that make Wisconsin an outdoor treasure.

Unfortunately, a bill now moving through the state Assembly fails to do that.

Assembly Bill 547 would upend 16 years of careful management of isolated wetlands in the state. The proposed law seeks to repeal what was put in place by a bipartisan act of the Legislature after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2001 that said federal clean water laws didn’t allow the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to regulate wetlands that weren’t connected to a stream or river.

More than 1 million acres of wetlands in Wisconsin—20 percent of all the state’s wetlands, according to the Wisconsin Wetlands Association—fall into that category.

A high-powered group lobbying in favor of AB 547, including Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, argues that the new bill is just common sense—that the 2001 law has hindered property owners and builders from developing land that has little ecological value. As Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna) told the Journal Sentinel’s Lee Bergquist recently, “The vast majority of those wetlands, you would never assume they were wetlands.”

That’s debatable. But even so, why not deal with that concern instead of putting millions of acres of wetlands that do have value at risk? And why not find a smart compromise with the Wetlands Association and an array of outdoors groups that oppose the bill? Why not use your power wisely?

Lucas Vebber, general counsel and director of environmental and energy policy at WMC, said the state chamber is “more than willing to sit down” with conservation and sporting groups and said the motivation behind the legislation was to solve “a very real problem” for developers.

“We would love to work with them in a way that maybe tightens up the bill,” he said. “We’re not looking to push through this original bill.” And that’s certainly good to hear, but so far, it has appeared that this bill is on a fast track and conservation groups say they feel left out of the process.

Wetlands are a critical feature of the Wisconsin environment. They filter drinking water, provide natural protection against flooding and shoreline erosion and provide a rich habitat for hunters.

The legislation requires replacement of wetlands at a ratio of 1.2 acres for every acre destroyed, which at first glance sounds reasonable. But look closer and you begin to wonder: Replacement with what—and where? Filling in wetlands in one spot, even if another wetland is built somewhere else, might still put residents downstream at risk during heavy rain, cause soil erosion and destroy habitats for ducks, geese, pheasants and rare or endangered species. ...

There is still time to take a deep breath and address the real issues. Steineke and the rest of the Republican leadership in the Legislature should do that. We can have both smart development and smart conservation. But only if developers and conservationists are willing to work together to make it so. The Legislature has an obligation to lead that discussion in the public interest.

—Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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