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Republican lawmakers are optimistic they will pass a bill opening 100,000 acres of Wisconsin wetland to development. Conservation and hunting groups want builders to continue following state law requiring them to minimize or avoid filling wetlands and to pay for replacement acreage to prevent flooding and purify water and maintain wildlife habitat.

Leaders of the Wisconsin Legislature’s Republican majority are expressing optimism they will pass a bill sought by developers that hunting and conservation groups say is one of the worst environmental rollbacks in decades.

Under a proposal aimed at reducing construction costs, about 100,000 wetland acres in and around populated areas would no longer be protected by state laws requiring builders to avoid or minimize wetland destruction, and to replace acreage that is filled.

“This is the worst conservation bill that I’ve seen in a generation,” said Wisconsin Wildlife Federation executive director George Meyer, a former state Department of Natural Resources secretary. The controversial 2013 Gogebic Taconite mining law would have allowed only 500 acres filled, he said.

The bill is headed toward a vote in the Assembly, but it hadn’t yet been scheduled for a committee vote in the Senate.

Permits to fill Wisconsin wetland acreage

The legislation’s lead authors said they had compromised with conservation groups, but Kyle Rorah, a lobbyist for Ducks Unlimited, said even with proposed changes the bill would be more damaging than any other legislation he could recall across the 21-state region he represents for the hunting organization.

Outdoors and conservation groups said they hoped moderate members of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy would amend the bill to focus it on solving legitimate problems in current law instead of deregulating 100,000 acres. For example, conservation groups recommended exempting from protection accidentally created low areas that fill with water and begin functioning as wetlands on dormant construction sites.

Wetlands prevent flooding, purify water and provide wildlife habitat. The bill’s co-authors, Senate president Roger Roth and Assembly majority leader Jim Steineke, said current state law impedes development by needlessly protecting smaller marshes.

Steineke, R-Kaukauna, said Assembly amendments reducing the bill’s scope from 1 million acres statewide to roughly 100,000 acres mostly in and around cities and villages is a significant compromise made in response to critics like Meyer.

“He’s making it sound like the end of the world,” Steineke said of Meyer’s continued opposition to the amended bill.

The amended bill would remove protection for wetlands of one acre or less per parcel of land, but Meyer said the concession wasn’t nearly as dramatic as Steineke and Roth make it sound.

The amendment merely focuses the wetland exemption on places where the vast majority of development takes place, while leaving wetland protections intact in remote places where building is unlikely, Meyer said. As communities expand, so would the acreage exempted from wetland protections, he said.

Unlike the original bill, the amended version eliminates the requirement that wetlands exempted from regulation be replaced.


seeking help

Rep. Romaine Quinn, R-Barron, said the exemption is needed by two businesses in his district — Louie’s Finer Meats and Don Johnson Motors — that are seeking new land in Cumberland. Because only wetlands are available in the isthmus community, they may need to move 12 miles away.

Steineke, who sells real estate when he’s not working at the Legislature, said the amended bill has a side benefit of discouraging sprawl.

“As someone familiar with the realty industry, what this bill will do is exactly what people have wanted to do for years, and that’s encourage denser development in and around the urban areas,” Steineke said.

Steineke and Roth contend that small wetlands have little value, but the Wisconsin Wetlands Association points to scientific research showing that size doesn’t determine value.

The amended bill would allow continued regulation of small wetlands if they are “rare or high quality” under a limited definition involving location and plant life, but it is inadequate, said the wetland association’s Erin O’Brien. The DNR gauges a wetland’s value by rating it for eight beneficial functions.

Steineke said storm water detention ponds the state requires developers to install would prevent flooding after wetlands are filled. But those features are designed primarily to allow sediment to settle out of rain water running off parking lots and rooftops, said Tom Jerow, a retired DNR water program manager.

But the ponds hold relatively small amounts of water compared to the rains that have washed out culverts and roads and flooded homes and businesses in recent years, Jerow said. One acre of wetland can hold enough water to cover about three-quarters of a football field a foot deep, Jerow said.

Awaiting Senate

panel action

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said through a spokeswoman that Steineke’s work on the wetland bill was commendable and he believes it will win enough votes to pass in the Assembly this session. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

An Assembly committee amended the bill, but no matching Senate amendments had been offered. Sen. Rob Cowles hadn’t yet scheduled a vote in the natural resources committee.

A spokeswoman for Roth, R-Appleton, said he has been working closely with Cowles. Steineke said Cowles was working on “technical language fixes” that should be completed soon. Cowles, R-Green Bay, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Wisconsin wetlands have been filled at a quickened pace since 2012 when the state relaxed regulations while requiring builders to minimize damage and pay for replacement wetlands in some cases, data reviewed by the Wisconsin State Journal show. From 2012 to 2017, few requests were denied.

Scientists estimate there were 10 million acres of Wisconsin wetlands before European settlement. Half of that acreage has been drained and filled for farms and other development. Of the remaining 5 million acres, up to 80 percent are protected by federal law because of their connections to lakes and streams. The remaining 20 percent — or 1 million acres — are protected under state law only.

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(8) comments

Rs Ts

If someone knows how to contact state representative(s) please post for us. We need the wetlands!

Support The 2nd

[angry] As others have stated, Walker and the GOP have been "no friend" to sportsman and haven't done a thing (since 2011) for those who carry either. I agree, even though the blow back could be severe for some people, it's time to send the "We don't listen to the people" Republicans packing!


simple solution : vote em out.


The Republicans and Walker have been in office too long.

It's time for those of us that hunt and fish to throw them out.

First they make it so we can't cross the railroad tracks to hunt and fish- now this!

Taxpayers have paid out more than enough flood disaster money in the past 10 years to know this is a terrible idea.


I was about to cut loose on this, but Frangel and ledwinc have said what I wanted to say, only probably better than I could have.

"He’s making it sound like the end of the world," Steineke said of Meyer's continued opposition to the amended bill.

It will BE the end of the world for some creatures, and if this death by a thousand cuts continues with the GOP money grabbers, eventually it will be a far worse, more expensive and less healthy world than what we have right now.

Mo' Money Scott Walker

Voters need to respond and vote accordingly. First the GOP gerrymandered our elections. Now they're coming for your flood protection, your hunting and fishing areas. They are no friends to Wisconsin sportsman.


Amazing! After all the analysis of the Houston TX flooding, our lawmakers didn't consider any of the findings when pushed by their donors to allow this to move forward. This is precisely what happened in Houston. Builders/developers convinced lawmakers that they should be allowed to fill wetlands wherever they pleased in the interest of providing more profits for the landowners. They paved, poured endless amounts of concrete never thinking about where the water would soak in once they destroyed natures ability to re-absorb rain water like it normally would. - guess what they got in return? FLOODS!!! The very reason our local educated folks demand that the marsh be allowed to remain NATURAL - to absorb excess rainfall. Whatever happened to our legislators ability to do the right thing instead of holding their hand out for HANDOUTS?


Steineke clearly has no interest in the future of Wisconsin, the USA, or the world given his obviously big money-driven support for blindered GOP bills that will push more wildlife and undeveloped wetlands toward extinction. And if those so-called “builders” are greedy enough to take advantage of such legal opportunities, then we should all hope extinction happens for these environmental sabotatures before nature and our legacy to our children vanishes from this earth. It starts things like federal support for coal, the cutbacks to our national parks system, and right down to our defenseless wetlands.

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