Wisconsin Senate committee OKs on wetland permit exemptions

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 - Wisconsin Republicans moved a revamped bill that would allow builders to fill marshes and swamps without a permit out of committee Thursday, Feb. 8, clearing the way for a full Senate floor vote.

The Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy voted 3-2 to approve the bill. All three Republicans on the panel voted for the measure. The panel's two Democrats, Mark Miller and Dave Hansen, voted against it, warning the loss of wetlands would worsen flooding and ruin wildlife habitat.

"I believe ... this bill, even as amended, fails to fulfill our constitutional obligation to protect the waters of Wisconsin," Miller said.

Sen. Robert Cowles, the committee's chairman and the revisions' chief author, said the measure strikes a balance between allowing business expansion and protecting the environment.

State Sen. Robert Cowles, R-Allouez.

Republicans and their allies in business and construction circles have long complained that the state Department of Natural Resources' permit process for filling wetlands slows development.

Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke and Senate President Roger Roth last fall introduced a bill that would have let developers fill state wetlands with a permit across the state. Conservation groups and hunting and fishing groups balked at the proposal.
Steineke walked the bill back, releasing an amendment that would allow developers to build on urban wetlands and up to three acres per parcel of rural wetlands without permits. Conservation groups didn't budge, saying the changes would still lead to the loss of untold wetland acres.

Cowles tried to broker a compromise, releasing a third version of the bill that shrinks the amount of urban wetlands developers could fill without a permit and require mitigation if they destroy more than 10,000 square feet. The committee approved that version Thursday after Ducks Unlimited and Wisconsin Trout Unlimited, Inc., announced they were neutral on the bill. Both groups had registered in opposition to Steineke's amendment.

Steineke has said he supports Cowles' changes. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald has said the full chamber will likely vote on the bill Feb. 20.