Wisconsin GOP revises wetland permit exemptions bill

Todd Richmond
Associated Press
Kyle Rorah, a spokesman for Ducks Unlimited, is a vocal opponent of the original proposal for the wetland permit exemptions bill.

MADISON — Wisconsin Republicans have revised a contentious bill that would have allowed developers to build on any state wetland without a permit, releasing new language Monday that limits the locations and number of acres that could be developed without oversight.

The changes weren't enough to please a key conservation group that has warned the bill could still lead to widespread wetland losses, resulting in more flooding and reduced wildlife habitat.

I don't see this bill as walking back very much at all," said Kyle Rorah, a spokesman for Ducks Unlimited, a vocal opponent of the original proposal. "The way they characterized this ... is deceptive."

As much as 30 percent of Wisconsin's roughly 5 million acres of wetlands are under state jurisdiction. The rest are under federal control because they're part of navigable water systems like the Great Lakes or the Mississippi River.

The GOP and its allies in the construction world have long complained about the state Department of Natural Resources' permit requirements for filling wetlands, saying the process slows business expansion.

Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke and Senate President Roger Roth introduced a bill last fall that would have allowed developers to fill any state wetlands without a permit. They still would have had to abide by compensation requirements in current state law — create 1.2 wetland acres for every acre destroyed, purchase credits from a mitigation bank or pay into a DNR fund for restoring wetlands.

Outdoor, hunting and environmental groups railed against the measure. They complained eliminating wetlands would exacerbate flooding and destroy habitat for animals such as frogs and ducks. They also warned newly constructed wetlands may not be in the same area or be as high-quality as the lost acreage.

Under the revisions released Monday, developers could fill up to an acre of wetlands in an urban area without a DNR permit if the activity doesn't affect a rare and high-quality wetland. The new provisions define an urban area as an incorporated area, an area within a mile of an incorporated area or an area served by a sewage system.

Developers could fill up to 3 acres per parcel of wetlands outside urban areas if the activity again doesn't disturb a rare and high-quality wetland and development is related to structures with an agricultural purpose.

Ducks Unlimited's Rorah said the new language still exposes "untold numbers" of wetlands to development with no state oversight.

Steineke countered that the new language is more targeted and incentivizes development around cities and towns, he said.

"This actually does the sporting community a favor," he said. "There will be less pressure (to build on wetlands) around (rural) areas that they really care about."

He added that he and Roth have been talking with Ducks Unlimited for months about the bill and included a number of changes the organization wanted, including a council to study wetland issues. Rorah said his group made multiple suggestions to improve the bill but the only idea included in the revisions was the council.

"That's it," he said. "The other components of this bill are either things we had never even brought up or things we are very against, like (filling) urban wetlands."

The Wisconsin Dairy Business Association was one of the original bill's supporters. WDBA Government Affairs Director John Holevoet said the group recognized that version of the legislation could be improved and is pleased with the revisions.

"It moves us one step closer to meaningful reform of our wetlands regulations," he said.

The Assembly's regulatory reform committee is set to vote on the changes Thursday.

Approval would clear the way for a full vote in that chamber. Speaker Robin Vos has said he expects the measure will pass. A spokesman for Senate Majority Scott Fitzgerald didn't immediately reply to an email.

The bill is AB 547.