Wetlands form the backbone of Illinois’ aquatic ecosystems, and support over 70% of the state’s threatened or endangered mammals, reptiles, and birds for at least part of their life cycle. Surprisingly, even wetland complexes in the highly industrialized Lake Calumet region support nesting populations of the Illinois endangered black-crowned night heron. The Chicago area holds nearly 100,000 acres of wetlands-a greater percentage than in any other part of Illinois. Besides enhancing the quality of life for the millions of people who live in the region, these wetlands help form the basis for the $600 million outdoor recreation industry in Illinois, funded by income from hunting, bird watching, and other outdoor activities.
The current statewide wetlands picture pales in comparison to what was once here. Illinois’ original cache of valuable wetland habitat has been reduced by over 90% since before human settlement. With the exception of Illinois Beach State Park, the vast majority of wetlands within the Great Lakes Basin have been filled and developed. This dwindling supply means that, in addition to restoring wetland habitats, Illinois needs regulation to protect everything it has left.
The estimate of wetlands left unprotected after the U.S. Supreme Court case Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County (SWANCC) v.U.S.Army Corps of Engineers in Illinois hovers around 150,000 acres, with over one thousand wetlands having been destroyed since 2001. In the Chicago area alone, a Sierra Club report uncovered that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) received 261 wetland destruction permit applications in the first year after the court’s decision to which it gave a ruling of “no jurisdiction,” meaning the developer had no federal regulations to follow during construction. Many developers are specifically requesting the “no jurisdiction” ruling on their applications.
As a fix to this problem, Illinois grassroots organizations including the Sierra Club, Illinois Environmental Council, and many others have been working tirelessly to encourage the adoption of state legislation to protect these so-called “isolated wetlands.” After a first attempt to pass legislation in 2002, the Illinois House of Representatives passed the Wetland Protection Act (HB 422) in May 2003. Primary changes to state law under the Act would include:
Wetland activity not covered under Corps rules would require a permit from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (DNR). This means that wetlands stripped of protection by new federal guidance would have some level of protection. It also exempts wetlands covered by the federal program from any state regulation. Highest quality wetlands would receive the most protection. Smaller wetlands will receive less protection under the Act.
Local wetland protection programs retain their authority. Several Chicago-area counties (DuPage, Lake, and Kane) already have progressive wetland protection ordinances in place. This bill would allow that authority to continue and would not require state permits for activities in those counties. A benefit of the bill is the incorporation of a process to align standards among the counties of northeastern Illinois.
Most farming activities are exempt. All lands converted to cropland prior to 1986 are exempted from the Act, and most day-to-day agricultural practices are exempt. Unless farmland contains an unusually high-quality wetland, any wetland not covered by the agricultural exemption will receive the lowest tier of state protection. A number of exemptions are in place for mining and utility activities as well. A multi-stakeholder board will be formed to advise state agencies on implementation. This board will include representatives from business, labor, and local government.
Fees associated with the program will be capped. Fee amounts will be established by the Illinois Pollution Control Board in a manner that makes the program self sustaining but will not create more income than needed to run the program.
The bill clearly makes a number of concessions to interests that promote the destruction of wetlands. However, strong support has developed for the Wetland Protection Act in both chambers of the Illinois General Assembly. Having passed the House, the bill is heading to the Senate in January 2004 with a bipartisan coalition of 15 senators having already signed on. As a product of many stakeholders with widely varying priorities, the Wetland Protection Act will not return the lost 90% of Illinois wetlands to their former level of biodiversity. But it offers an excellent opportunity to reverse the impact of federal guidance that allows destruction of these habitats.
The Illinois Environmental Council and Illinois chapter of the Sierra Club made contributions to this report.