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Protect wetlands (copy)

A Republican wetlands bill passed an Assembly committee Thursday on a 6-3 party line vote.

Wisconsin hunting and conservation groups have blasted a Republican proposal to roll back wetlands regulations as an environmental disaster. But after several tweaks, the authors think they have a bill that will quiet the opposition.

In its original form, Assembly Bill 547 would have opened up about 1 million acres of state-regulated wetlands for development. That represents more than 20 percent of the state’s total wetlands.

The proposal was introduced in October and gained substantial support from real estate interests, developers and waste management companies who say regulations stymie development. But it also drew heated opposition from hunting and conservation groups, as well as Democrats.

In January, Republicans amended the bill with limits on the locations and size of wetlands that could be developed without oversight, but conservationists said the measure still left the door open to the destruction of lands that provide wildlife habitat and flood control.

Last week, Republicans further scaled back the scope of the bill, prompting some conservation groups to drop their opposition and take a neutral stance on the proposal.

Why are wetlands important?

Wetlands provide several benefits. Their plants and soils can store and filter pesticides, animal waste and other pollutants. That makes for cleaner water that makes its way into groundwater systems. They also prevent flooding by storing water from rains and melting snow, a function of increasing importance as climate change brings a proliferation of torrential rains. In addition, wetlands provide critical habitat for wildlife like birds, frogs, turtles and plants. In addition, urban wetlands, like Madison’s Cherokee Marsh, provide recreational, scientific and educational opportunities.

How much of the state is covered by wetlands?

About one-seventh. Wetlands comprise about 5.3 million acres of the state, about half of what the state had before it was settled. Wisconsin regulates about 1 million acres, which are regarded as “isolated” wetlands. The remaining wetlands, those adjacent to navigable streams, rivers, lakes and canals, are regulated by the federal government.

How are Wisconsin wetlands regulated now?

The state took regulatory control of isolated wetlands in 2001 after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the federal government didn’t have the authority to regulate them. The state Legislature, in a unanimous vote, put a state system in place to protect wetlands. Those looking to fill a wetland currently have to obtain a permit unless the land is being used for certain purposes, such as the construction of farm ponds or the maintenance of storm water retention ponds. There are also exemptions for “artificial wetlands” — those resulting from human activity not intended to produce a wetland — unless the state determines them to have significant functional value.

In 2012, Republicans loosened regulations by allowing “mitigation” for the destruction of wetlands. If a developer fills in one acre of wetland, they have to mitigate the damage by establishing 1.2 acres somewhere else. They can also buy credits from a mitigation bank or pay into a Department of Natural Resources restoration fund. A review of DNR data by the Wisconsin State Journal found a steep increase in wetlands acreage approved for filling after those changes.

What are Republicans proposing?

At first, the bill, authored by Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, himself a realtor, proposed to open up all 1 million acres of state-regulated wetlands to development. But blowback from conservation and hunting groups prompted GOP lawmakers to scale back the proposal substantially. Steineke said that a later revision would have reduced the proposal’s scope from 1 million acres to about 100,000 by restricting it to areas within a mile of urban areas and up to three acres per parcel of rural wetlands.

A Senate version, Senate Bill 600, offered by Sen. Rob Cowles, R-Green Bay, would further scale it back by applying it only to wetlands within a half-mile of an urban area, defined as an incorporated area or one served by a sewage system, and requiring mitigation if destruction of wetlands exceeds 10,000 square feet.

Who is lobbying for this bill?

Primarily realtors, but also builders, developers, business groups and waste disposal companies, one of which complained at a public hearing on the bill that a wetland created by the company’s own drainage ditches prevented it from expanding. Lobbying records show 20 groups registering in favor of the proposal, including Americans for Prosperity, the Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association, the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the National Waste and Recycling Association and the Wisconsin Realtors Association.

Records show that groups backing the bill spent at least $27,000 lobbying for it, but the amount likely exceeds that as groups are only required to list specific bill they are lobbying for if they constitute 10 percent or more of their total lobbying effort, so several groups didn’t specifically list the amount spent on the bill. And the realtors lobby, which spent more than $565,000 on lobbying last year, didn’t complete its lobbying report, though lobbying records show they supported it.

According to records with the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, the realtors have also donated to Republican campaigns backing the bill. Cowles has received $13,410 from real estate interests since 1995, and Steineke has garnered $14,541 since 2008. Since 2007, the realtors have contributed $24,500 to Senate President Roger Roth, a co-author of the bill.

Who is against it?

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Fifteen lobbying groups registered opposition, including the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, the Wisconsin Wetlands Association, Citizen Action of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Farmers Union, Dane County, Ducks Unlimited and several other conservation groups. They’ve kicked in at least $6,729 for lobbying efforts — about 1.2 percent of that spent by the bill’s backers — according to state records.

Have Republican amendments softened opposition?

Yes. After the latest version was unveiled, Ducks Unlimited and Wisconsin Trout Unlimited dropped their opposition and announced they would take a neutral stance on the bill. But not everyone joined them. The Wisconsin Wetlands Association maintains that the Cowles bill “still clears the way for the destruction of tens, possibly even hundreds, of thousands of acres of wetlands important for waterfowl, trout, fur bearers, and many other species of fish and wildlife.”

The group points out that as communities expand, so does the range of wetlands that would become exempt. And a provision in the bill that eliminates the ability of local governments to protect wetlands undermines efforts by cities, towns and villages to address flooding and water quality issues.

Where does the proposal stand in the Legislature?

The bill, with Steineke’s amendment, passed through an Assembly committee late last month on a partisan vote and is cleared for a vote on the floor. A Senate committee passed Cowles’ version on Thursday, clearing the way for a floor vote in that body. That means the two versions of the bill have to be reconciled, but Steineke has said he’ll support Cowles’ changes.

Will Gov. Scott Walker sign it?

That’s likely.

"I think there is a way on this bill and other bills to balance both preserving our natural resources and having a growing economy,” he said. “I think the two can go hand in hand. We’ve looked at ways of doing it in the past and we’ll certainly work with them throughout the legislative process to make sure there’s that kind of balance.”

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Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.