by Charlie Luthin, Wisconsin Wetlands Association
The Supreme Court decision that eliminated protection for as many as 1 million acres of Wisconsin’s wetlands is beginning to have its impact in Wisconsin. As of this writing, 14 wetland fill projects representing an unknown number of acres have received letters indicating that the Army Corps of Engineers does NOT have jurisdiction over the sites. This means that these wetlands can be, and are being, filled without the need for a permit.
The ruling by the Supreme Court on a case involving the federal Clean Water Act affected “isolated wetlands”—those wetlands that are not contiguous with navigable waterways. Isolated wetlands include prairie potholes, kettles, coastal swales, and some bogs in Wisconsin. Since the state’s jurisdiction over wetlands is linked to federal jurisdiction, where the federal government lost its authority, so too did the state. Isolated wetlands are presently unprotected in Wisconsin, as well as in many states. This is considered by many to be THE largest conservation issue for many years in the state.
The state Senate acted quickly to try to repair the damage by passing a “status quo” wetland protection bill, SB 37, in mid-February. The bill, unfortunately, has languished in the more conservative Assembly, where special interests have influenced lawmakers. The development and agri-business industries see the lost protection for wetlands as an opportunity to weaken wetland laws in the state. Instead of status quo protection, they are lobbying hard for much-diminished protection for our state’s wetlands.
Since there is a stalemate in the State Legislature, it appears that there will be no quick solution for restoring lost wetland protection. One hope is that the new Governor, Scott McCallum, will take a leadership role for breaking the deadlock in the Legislature.
A loose coalition of 72 national, state, and local organizations, representing over 321,000 members throughout Wisconsin, has called on the Legislature to enact a law that will restore lost protection. Representative organizations calling for action include the Wisconsin Waterfowl Association, Trout Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, Ducks Unlimited, Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, Wisconsin Association of Lakes, Wisconsin Audubon Council, Sierra Club, and many of its groups throughout the state, and the Forest County Potawatami Community.
A resolution asking for similar measures by the Legislature is being forwarded in many counties of the state at the annual Wisconsin Conservation Congress hearings. The Congress represents citizens throughout the state, and serves in an advisory role to the Natural Resources Board and to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
A citizen based initiative—Wisconsin Wetlands Watch, or “W-3,” is being developed by Wisconsin Wetlands Association, Sierra Club, and many conservation partners, to monitor wetland losses throughout the state. Citizens are being asked to document—with photographs, notes, and other observations—wetland fill activity in their areas. The partnership will help to publicize wetland fill activities throughout the state to bring attention to the crisis.