Conservationists make strong showing in opposition to bill that would eliminate wetland protection

Paul A. Smith/Journal SentinelWI Green Fire, December 23, 2017

Wetlands such as this one on a farm in St. Croix County would lose protection under a bill being considered by the Wisconsin Legislature.
(Photo: Tracy Hames)
Wetlands such as this one on a farm in St. Croix County would lose protection under a bill being considered by the Wisconsin Legislature. (Photo: Tracy Hames)

Conservationists packed hearing rooms at the capital in Madison on Thursday and mounted strong opposition to Republican bills that would remove protections from 1 million acres of wetlands in Wisconsin.

“The potential impacts (of the bills) are unacceptable,” said Nels Swenson, a Ducks Unlimited representative, during a joint public hearing on Assembly Bill 547 and Senate Bill 600.

But the measures also received support from developers and the authors appear determined to push the proposed legislation ahead without modification.

The bills received a joint hearing before the Assembly Committee on Regulatory Licensing Reform and the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy.
The bills are authored by Sen. Roger Roth (R-Appleton) and Rep. Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna).

The proposals would eliminate the Department of Natural Resources development permit system and allow unfettered filling of non-federal wetlands.

Estimated at about 20% of the state’s 5 million acres of wetlands, the sites range from naturally-occurring marshes and fens to man-made pits.

Business owners and local administrators testified that current rules – passed in bipartisan fashion in 2001 – are unnecessarily hampering development.

Dozens of hunters, anglers and other conservationists, however, said the proposed legislation is too broad and would result in losses of prime habitat and valuable ecosystem functions.

“This is like killing a mosquito with a 10-pound sledge hammer,” said Larry Bonde, chairman of the Wisconsin Conservation Congress.

Several pro-conservation speakers said another piece of legislation – Assembly Bill 388 authored by Rep. Andre Jacque (R-De Pere) – deals more directly with development delays related to artificial wetlands.

Assembly Bill 547 and Senate Bill 600 do not distinguish between the quality or functionality of affected non-Federal wetlands.

“A large proportion of these wetlands are high quality and provide valuable fish and wildlife habitat throughout the state of Wisconsin,” said George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation.

Meyer characterized the proposals as written as “extremely damaging” to the hunting, fishing and trapping community.

The bills retain the requirement for builders to mitigate each acre of wetland filled by creating 1.2 acres of new wetlands.

However, “all wetlands are not created equal,” said Ron Eckstein, a retired DNR wildlife biologist who represented Wisconsin’s Green Fire at the hearing.

“Developing new wetlands in the wrong place would support few game species and are not good wetlands,” Eckstein said. “They have shorter food chains and are not attractive to wildlife.”

Wildlife experts estimate 70% of the mallards harvested by Wisconsin duck hunters are produced in Wisconsin using the type of wetland habitats that would be subject to destruction under the proposed legislation, said Swenson.

The hearing had unofficially the largest turnout this year on a conservation-related bill. Two additional rooms were used to accommodate the overflow crowd.

In addition to those who spoke, 64 people registered in opposition to the bills and 16 registered in support.

In an effort to reduce the negative impacts of the proposed legislation, a coalition of conservation groups led by Ducks Unlimited offered a detailed proposal to amend the bills. The suggestions would allow exemptions to current rules for artificial wetlands and streamline the permitting process.

However, the authors seem set on a different path.

“Today’s public hearing was a great step forward for this incredibly necessary legislation,” Rep. Steineke said in a statement issued Thursday. “From a homeowner trying to make an addition to his home to a local business owner who is ready to expand, Wisconsinites can be assured that needless red tape won’t inhibit their growth. I look forward to moving this bill through the legislative process and seeing it voted on on the Assembly floor.”

The bills would need to be approved by each committee before reaching the full Assembly and Senate.

Sen. Robert Cowles (R-Green Bay), chairman of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy, did not respond to call calls Friday on the timing of a possible vote.

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