Republicans want to roll back wetland regulations across state

Legislators say change would spur more economic development

Last updated on May 15th, 2019 at 04:55 pm

Wisconsin Republicans want to roll back state regulations for wetlands not controlled by the federal government.

Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, State Rep. Rob Stafsholt, R-New Richmond, and Senate President Roger Roth, R-Appleton, began circulating legislation Friday to reform Wisconsin’s wetland permitting laws.

“The only wetlands affected by bill are non federal, or about 18% of wetlands,” Steineke said on Twitter. “We’re one of only a few states that regulates nonfed wetlands.”

Under current law, developers can be denied permits that disrupt or destroy wetlands or they can be required to modify their plans to minimize or avoid the destruction.

The law also states for every acre of wetland filled in, the developer has to create 1.2 acres of wetland somewhere else. The proposal keeps that provision.

The state has regulated wetlands that are not protected by the Federal Clean Water Act since 2001.

Those wetlands, which are estimated by The Wisconsin Wetlands Association to be about 1 million acres, or 20 percent of the state’s wetlands, are those not directly adjacent to a body of water.

In a video on Steineke’s Twitter site, he and Roth stand at a development site that was put on hold because of a wetland and discuss how their proposed bill will allow business owners and developers to take a “common sense approach” to how the state regulates wetlands.

“We want more high quality wetlands and we are doing that by removing DNR oversight of isolated, non-federal wetlands,” Roth says. “Right now, the DNR is standing in the way of our businesses being able to expand.”

Steineke said that Wisconsin is one of three states to regulate isolated wetlands.

Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce released a statement in support of the legislation, saying it brings Wisconsin “back into the mainstream nationally by exempting isolated, non-federal wetlands from permitting requirements while still maintaining mitigation requirements.”

“This legislation strikes an important balance that will enhance economic development in our state while also protecting and enhancing high quality wetlands,” said Lucas Vebber, WMC General Counsel and director of environmental and energy policy. “This is a true win-win for all Wisconsinites.”

Erin O’Brien, policy program director for The Wisconsin Wetlands Association, said while the proposal might sound good on paper, it does not work well in the real world.

“What this bill does is trades out a system we have now, which balances resource protection with economic development,” O’Brien said.  “It removes the protections entirely and creates a system where developers are invited to pay for the privilege of paving.”

Wetlands capture heavy rains or snow melt and therefore protect farm fields, homes and roads, particularly in downstream communities from flooding.

The Foxconn Technology Group incentive package bill signed into law last month includes relaxed environmental regulations.

During Foxconn negotiations, Gov. Scott Walker said he is open to expanding the Foxconn environmental process to other businesses around the state. He said the project will be among the most scrutinized in the country and if it can balance the environment and the economy other companies should be able to do the same.

Steineke said the Foxconn deal helped highlight the problem too many environmental regulations can have on businesses and developers, but the wetland proposal has been in the works for some time.

“We’ve been hearing stories from home owners and developers for years,” Steineke said. “I think this strikes a common sense of balance. It will protect high quality wetlands and create a more streamline process that does not add any necessary level of regulation.”

Steineke would like to hold hearings on the bill in October and have it voted on in the Senate and Legislature November.

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