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An Environmental Balancing Act? Wisconsin's New Wetland Law


After weeks of heated debate, Wisconsin has a new wetlands policy.

Governor Walker signed a bill into law Wednesday that he and Republican lawmakers call a “job creator” because it makes it easier for businesses to build or expand.

Supporters call one of the law’s strengths, the requirement that applicants submit a mitigation plan to “make up” for affected wetlands.

According to WUWM Environmental Reporter Susan Bence, we will likely hear more about that “compensation” clause, as the state implements its new wetlands law.

Tracy Hames had no objections to what he considered the fundamental spirit of the legislation – to remove confusion and unnecessary bureaucracy when someone applies for a permit to develop on a wetland.

Hames says his organization, the Wisconsin Wetlands Association, had long discussions with lawmakers about what progressive policy reform would look like.

“One good thing that’s come out of this is that the word mitigation has been on people’s minds a lot more minds a lot more than it had been previously,” Hames says.

Yet, Hames says, along the way the bill lost sight of the value of protecting wetlands. In their natural state, they act as sponges, drawing in rainwater and thus reduce the risk of flooding.

Wetlands also provide habitat for native creatures and a stopover for migrating birds.

Wisconsin has lost half of its original wetlands to development. Hames says, to hold on to what’s left, mitigation should be the last resort.

“The problem with mitigation is fundamentally that though we’ve advanced science a long way, we’re not very good at recreating what Mother Nature made originally; so when we do a mitigation project it, in nearly all the cases, does provide wetland resources to the quality of the resources to the quality of the resources that are lost,” Hames says.

Hames fears even the most pristine of the state’s wetland systems are now at risk.

Scott Manley with the business association Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce says Hames has it all wrong.

“We believe that we’re probably in addition to having more wetlands in Wisconsin as a result of this bill, we think actually higher quality wetlands. The permitting process that we’ve had in place for years didn’t really allow the DNR to look at the quality of the wetland that’s in existence as well as the quality of the mitigated wetland and this bill really allows them to do that and exercise their judgment as regulators,” Manley says.

Manley says Wisconsin lagged behind neighboring states that boast of having a more “sophisticated” permitting protocol.

He insists the new law will help Wisconsin make up for missed commercial opportunities.

“Of course everybody read the headlines about the Bass Pro Shop’s proposal up in Green Bay that ended up not happening because of an argument over a wetland. I think that type of project would be going forward if this bill were in place back then,” Manley says.

The new law calls on the DNR to weigh the economic potential of a project during the permitting review.

Tracy Hames with the Wisconsin Wetlands Association says it will now rely on “education” to demonstrate that job-creating developments can break ground without altering Wisconsin’s water rich geography.