GOP promises eliminating wetland permits won't hurt state

Wisconsin state Capitol (WLUK file photo/Scott Hurley)

MADISON (AP) -- The authors of a Republican bill that would allow developers to fill state wetlands without a permit promised lawmakers Thursday that the measure will streamline the regulatory burden for businesses and won't result in any net loss of wetlands.

Sen. Roger Roth and Assembly Majority Leader Roger Roth addressed the Senate's natural resources committee and the Assembly's licensing committee during a packed joint hearing on the bill. They said the measure would affect only a fraction of Wisconsin's wetlands since most are under federal jurisdiction and stressed that builders would still have to abide by requirements to create 1.2 acres of new wetlands for every acre filled.

"This is just streamlining the permitting process," Roth said. "This bill results in no net loss of wetlands in Wisconsin. ... If we do this the sky won't fall."

Sen. Mark Miller, a Madison Democrat, pushed back. Filling wetlands reduces flood protection and destroys wildlife habitat.

"This bill would not let us fulfill our constitutional obligations as legislators to protect the waters of this state," Miller said.

Estimates of how many of Wisconsin's 5 million or so wetland acres fall under state jurisdiction range from 10 percent to 30 percent. The rest are under federal jurisdiction.

Republicans and their allies in the construction industry have long bristled at state Department of Natural Resources permit requirements for filling state wetlands, complaining the process slows business expansion.

Republicans set the stage for the bill by passing a $3 billion incentives package to lure a Foxconn Technology Group plant to Pleasant Prairie. The package allows the Taiwanese electronics giant to fill wetlands without permits. WMC lobbyist Scott Manley said in August the package could provide a "proof of concept" for regulatory reform.

Conservationists and Republicans alike predicted the Foxconn incentives would lead to much broader environmental rollbacks after critics complained other businesses don't enjoy similar perks.

The Dairy Business Association, the state builders association, the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, the state cranberry growers and Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state's largest business group, have registered in support of the permit exemption bill. Registered against are the Wisconsin Wetlands Association and the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation as well as the Sierra Club and Nature Conservancy's state chapters and Ducks Unlimited.

Nels Swenson, state policy chair for Ducks Unlimited, told lawmakers in submitted testimony that the bill would lead to the destruction of wetland habitat that coveted mallards need to survive and reproduce.

"The potential impacts are unacceptable," Swenson wrote. "The legislation as written does unjust harm to resources that sustain wildlife species critically important to the sportsmen's community."

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