Advocates of proposed legislation to remove protections for nearly 1 million acres of Wisconsin wetlands are advancing the usual story line, depicting bureaucracy as oppressive to development.

But what they fail to acknowledge is environmental rules serve a purpose, and to eliminate them—as opposed to improving them—would benefit a relatively small number of developers at the expense of the public interest.

The legislation—Assembly Bill 547 and Senate Bill 600—would allow developers to forgo the state Department of Natural Resources permitting process, which seeks to minimize the effects of development on what’s known as isolated wetlands.

The bill’s backers characterize “isolated wetlands” as insignificant and inferior to federally-protected wetlands constituting about 4 million acres in the state. But “isolated” is really a misnomer. Their connection to other parts of the landscape might not be obvious, but the connection exists and is complex. These wetlands provide critical wildlife habitat (including for hunters), prevent flooding and purify water.

The proposal received a public hearing last month, and while environmental and business groups were predictably on opposite sides, a path of compromise did emerge.

Republican leaders are rightly concerned about rules lacking in common-sense application, and they cite some absurd examples of construction projects delayed or halted by seemingly arbitrary wetland designations. Indeed, it is mystifying how certain lands receive protections while adjacent and seemingly identical pieces somehow elude the DNR’s radar.

Hunting groups such as Ducks Unlimited support creating more consistency in how rules are applied. They advocate for exemptions for artificial wetlands that fail to meet the legal definition of wetlands, and the groups support measures to reduce the DNR’s workload so the agency can quickly act on permit requests.

These groups seek to avoid arbitrary decisions through sound science and better communication among stakeholders—something Democrats and Republicans can support.

The state’s wetlands should not turn into a political trophy for candidates to display during their 2018 campaigns. Wetlands are too important to both ecological and public health to become election-year fodder.

Wisconsin has a long tradition of environmental stewardship, though the legislation’s proponents have tried to use that point as a reason to pass the bill, noting Wisconsin is an outlier in its protections for isolated wetlands.

But maybe being an outlier is a good thing in this regard, especially given the frequency of so-called 100 year floods in communities that have filled in and paved over many of their wetlands. Once a development is erected on wetlands, they’re gone for good. The DNR regulations act as a better-safe-than-sorry buffer, preventing the most ill-advised developments.

With the economy continuing to pick up momentum and more developers seeking to break ground where they can find it, now is not the time to eliminate environmental protections. But it is the time (and always is the time) to craft smarter legislation, fixing bureaucratic problems without tossing out the entire bureaucratic process.

GazetteXtra.com does not condone or review every comment. Read more in our Commenter Policy Agreement

  • Keep it clean. Comments that are obscene, vulgar or sexually oriented will be removed. Creative spelling of such terms or implied use of such language is banned, also.
  • Don't threaten to hurt or kill anyone.
  • Be nice. No racism, sexism or any other sort of -ism that degrades another person.
  • Harassing comments. If you are the subject of a harassing comment or personal attack by another user, do not respond in-kind. Use the "Report comment abuse" link below to report offensive comments.
  • Share what you know. Give us your eyewitness accounts, background, observations and history.
  • Do not libel anyone. Libel is writing something false about someone that damages that person's reputation.
  • Ask questions. What more do you want to know about the story?
  • Stay focused. Keep on the story's topic.
  • Help us get it right. If you spot a factual error or misspelling, email newsroom@gazettextra.com or call 1-800-362-6712.
  • Remember, this is our site. We set the rules, and we reserve the right to remove any comments that we deem inappropriate.

Report comment abuse