Throughout the Great Lakes region, a swampy, unassuming grassland habitat known as a wetland plays a vital role in preserving the Great Lakes ecosystem.
Wetlands act as natural filters, cleaning Great Lakes water, and mitigating flooding while providing wildlife habitat.
But over the past two centuries, most of the region’s wetlands were paved over and destroyed until environmental laws were enacted to protect what was left.
Today, with the region mired in economic crisis, new pressures are arising to fill in remaining wetlands for development.
This debate is now playing out in the state of Wisconsin, which in 2001 enacted what George Meyer, former head of the state Department of Natural Resources, calls “the strongest wetland protections in the country.”
Early this year, the state Legislature exempted a small wetland in the shadow of Lambeau Field, home of the world champion Green Bay Packers, from the process in place for every other wetland in the state.
This fall, Republican Gov. Scott Walker proposed a package of bills called “Back to Work Wisconsin.” These included a proposed revamping of the state’s rules regarding wetlands preservation. This will likely make it easier to fill in wetlands deemed of marginal quality in exchange for mitigation -- the creation of new wetlands of supposedly superior quality.
That has some environmentalists worrying that Wisconsin could go from being a national leader in wetlands protections to being on the leading edge of efforts to roll those protections back, in the name of job creation.
For the birds
Gildo Tori, public policy director of nonprofit Ducks Unlimited’s Great Lakes/Atlantic Region, based in Ann Arbor, Mich., says his group is keeping a close eye on what’s happening in Wisconsin.
“Wisconsin produces a lot of ducks,” Tori says. He cites data showing that ducks banded in Wisconsin were shot by hunters in more than 25 other states, as well as a study that found waterfowl hunters nationally generate billions of dollars of economic activity and support tens of thousands of jobs that, notes Tori, “can’t be exported.”
Wisconsin’s 2001 law, which passed both houses of the Wisconsin Legislature unanimously, plugged a loophole in federal wetlands regulation created by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. The law extended state protections to isolated wetlands, those unconnected to any navigable waterway. Tori calls these wetlands “really critical from a waterfowl perspective.”
Wisconsin once had 10 million acres of wetlands, approximately 50 percent of which have been destroyed. Other Great Lakes states have fared even worse: Illinois, Indiana and Ohio have each divested between 85 and 90 percent of their original wetlands stock.
In passing the exemption for up to three acres of the so-called Bergstrom wetland near Lambeau Field, GOP legislators framed the issue in terms of jobs versus excessive regulation.
“This situation is the poster child for what’s wrong with state policy and how it prevents development and the creation of jobs in this state,” said state Sen. Dale Schultz, a moderate Republican from Richland Center.
And state Rep. Scott Krug, R-Wisconsin Rapids, chided opponents for “keeping job creation on the back burner in lieu of getting bureaucrats their lifetime achievement awards.”
Tom Larson, vice president of legal and public affairs for the Wisconsin Realtors Association, says current rules “don’t differentiate between different sizes and qualities of wetlands,” and that property owners must go through too many hoops before they can seek permission to infill. “Unfortunately, many projects never move forward or are dramatically scaled back.”
The Realtors Association, says Larson, would like mitigation to be considered early in the process “if there is a net environmental benefit.” He believes it’s possible to create new wetlands that are as good or better than the ones they replace.
Is mitigation the answer?
Erin O’Brien, policy director for the Wisconsin Wetlands Association, a Madison-based nonprofit group, calls this argument “a really good sales pitch.” But she’s not buying it: “A lot of the wetlands that are being restored these days are open water ponds, as opposed to historically intact systems.”
Some wetland types, like bogs and fens, cannot be recreated at all, says O’Brien. And while her group is not dead-set against infilling, when necessary, even the best-case scenario involves the loss of wetlands in their current location.
Moreover, there is disagreement over what constitutes a worthy wetland.
“People will talk about how they support wetlands,” sighs O’Brien. “Then they’ll say, ‘But this wetland’s really a dog.’ ” More aggravating still, the wetlands dismissed in this fashion were typically degraded by human activity.
That’s certainly true of the Bergstrom wetland. About a decade ago, about half the 21-acre parcel was filled in. The most visible areas, along the disturbed periphery, have been taken over by a tall billowy invasive called Phragmites, or common reed.
“I suspect to an average person it’s not all that attractive,” admits Bud Harris, professor emeritus of natural and applied sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. “People don’t see the functional value.”
A DNR wildlife biologist who visited the site found that it contained sedges and rare plants, as well as sandhill cranes, mourning doves and woodcocks. “This is one of the best urban wetlands in my tenure and deserves to remain functional and intact," he wrote in his report.
Despite such concerns, the project was green-lighted by a DNR higher-up. The Wetlands Association challenged this decision, but the exemption was passed before a hearing was held.
Ironically, the retailer named as a possible tenant has disclaimed interest in the property. Larry Whiteley, a spokesman for the Missouri-based Bass Pro Shops, says his conservation-minded company had one “one casual phone call from somebody on that property” and didn’t know it was a wetland. He’s still bitter about “the crucifixion we took for something we didn’t do.”
Paul Kent, an attorney for Bergstrom, says the plan is still to land “destination retail” at the site. But nine months after the exemption was granted, no development has occurred.
O’Brien calls the choice between jobs and wetlands preservation “a false dichotomy.” She argues that, under current law, “there are many development projects around the state that have been developed while also avoiding and minimizing the impacts to wetlands.”
Todd Ambs, formerly the DNR’s water division administrator, agrees, saying “applicants that work with the department can often find a middle ground where they can complete the project and protect the environment.”
Beyond that, Ambs, now president of the national River Network in Portland, Ore., knows of no case “where wetland mitigation and human restoration of a wetland can adequately compensate for destroying a wetland that Mother Nature took 10,000 years to create.”
Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. The project, a partnership of the Center and MapLight, is supported by the Open Society Institute.
The nonprofit and nonpartisan Center (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Television, Wisconsin Public Radio and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication and other news media. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.