GOP tweaks wetlands permit bill again

Todd Richmond
Associated Press
Wetlands such as this one on a farm in St. Croix County would lose protection under a bill being considered by the  Wisconsin Legislature.

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Republicans released more tweaks to their bill allowing developers to fill state wetlands without permits Wednesday, defusing opposition from at least two powerful conservation groups.

Ducks Unlimited and Wisconsin Trout Unlimited Inc. have emerged as two of the bill's most well-known opponents. They're concerned the bill could destroy wildlife habitat. But both groups have registered as neutral on the measure's latest iteration.

"Understanding that the truest form of a compromise comes when everyone walks away with less than their full ask, the (revisions) introduced this morning ... strikes a reasonable balance that we've all been working towards for months," Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, the bill's chief Assembly sponsor, said in a news release.

Trout Unlimited lobbyist Brandon Scholz said his group hasn't fully reviewed the changes. Ducks Unlimited Government Affairs Representative Kyle Rorah didn't immediately return messages.

Regardless, Republicans are on the march to passage. The Senate natural resources committee is expected to approve the bill Thursday and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said the full chamber will likely vote on the proposal Feb. 20.

Republicans and their allies in the construction industry have long complained about the state Department of Natural Resources' wetland permitting process, saying it slows business expansion.

Steineke and Senate President Roger Roth introduced a bill last fall that would have let developers fill state wetlands without a DNR permit. Builders still would have had to abide by compensation requirements in 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.

Outdoors and conservation groups railed against the idea, complaining that eliminating wetlands would exacerbate urban flooding and destroy habitat for animals like ducks and frogs. They also fear new wetlands may not be created in the same area or be as high-quality as the lost acreage.

Steineke last month released a new bill that would allow developers to build on up to an acre of urban wetlands without a permit if the activity doesn't disturb a high-quality wetland. The language defined urban wetlands as wetlands that lie within a mile of an incorporated area or an area served by a sewage system.

The bill also would let developers fill up to 3 acres per parcel of low-quality wetlands outside urban areas. They wouldn't have to mitigate the first 1.5 acres of non-urban wetlands they destroy, and builders could fill any artificial wetland without a permit.

Ducks Unlimited warned the new scaled-back language would still result in the loss of untold wetland acres. Both that group and Trout Unlimited registered in opposition along with a host of environmental organizations.

Roth and Republican Sen. Robert Cowles, chairman of the Senate natural resources committee, quietly introduced revisions Wednesday. Urban wetlands would now be defined as wetlands that lie within a half-mile of an incorporated area or an area served by a sewage system rather than a mile, reducing the amount of territory that could be filled.

Developers who fill more than 10,000 square feet of an urban wetland would have to mitigate square footage equal to the portion that exceeds 10,000 feet, a new requirement that wasn't in the January revisions.