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Wisconsin Senate committee OKs wetland exemptions bill

Shawn Johnson

Wisconsin Public Radio

Republicans on a state Senate panel voted 3-2 Thursday to pass a scaled-back version of a bill that would let developers fill more state wetlands without permits.

While hunting and fishing groups are hardly embracing the plan, some are no longer fighting it after it was changed to protect "rare and high quality" wetlands and require permits for larger construction projects.

Unlike federal wetlands that are adjacent to lakes and rivers, state wetlands are typically isolated swamps or bogs. They cover about 1 million acres in Wisconsin.

Under the original version of this bill, developers could have built on those wetlands without permits.

The latest version of the bill by Sen. Robert Cowles, R-Green Bay, would exempt developers from permits if they fill less than an acre of wetlands in urban areas or three acres in rural areas.

"I think it provides an excellent balance by protecting those rare types of wetlands while allowing development to move forward marginally in especially urban areas," Cowles said.

While Democrats supported the changes in committee, they ultimately voted against the bill.

Sen. Mark Miller, D-Monona, said urban areas needed to preserve wetlands to slow the surface water runoff that accompanies development.

"It's the worst place to remove these restrictions as opposed to being where it's most desirable," Miller said.

Some outdoor groups dropped their formal opposition to the bill following Cowles' changes, including Ducks Unlimited and Wisconsin Trouts Unlimited.

Trout Unlimited volunteer Mike Kuhr said at a Capitol press conference that he was glad the plan would require developers to mitigate the wetlands they fill by restoring or creating new wetlands somewhere else.

"That forces you to stop and think, is this the best situation? Is this the best way to develop this piece of property?" Kuhr said.

But while Kuhr's group was no longer fighting the bill, he said it still couldn't support it, even with the changes.

"We do not believe in the filling of wetlands," said Kuhr. "We believe that there are still certain types of wetlands out there that deserve more scrutiny and more protections."

The state's largest business group, which favored the original plan, was still onboard after the changes.

"I think it's a step in the right direction," said Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce lobbyist Lucas Vebber.

Other groups, like the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, were still reviewing the changes.

Wisconsin Public Radio, © Copyright 2018, Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System and Wisconsin Educational Communications Board. Find more WPR news on KUWS-FM 91.3 or wpr.org.

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