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.