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New Wisconsin wetlands legislation needs modification to protect habitat, state economy

New legislation aims to improve and streamline the wetland permitting process in Wisconsin, but with the positive changes come certain aspects Ducks Unlimited is asking Wisconsin legislators to address in an effort to maintain strong wetland protections while being supportive of a strong state economy.

Nels Swenson, Wisconsin state chairman for Ducks Unlimited, testified on behalf of DU to address the strengths and weaknesses of Assembly Bill 463 and Senate Bill 368, both of which seek to simplify wetland permitting. Swenson is among a select group of DU volunteers and staff working together to improve this proposed legislation.

This group has identified three of the most positive aspects of AB 463/SB 368: public review of permit applications, the process for allowing general permits and the provision for an in lieu fee program. These three changes will benefit the public and private sectors, as well as wetlands.

"Several provisions in the proposed legislation are welcomed, and some individuals and groups have echoed those points," said Swenson. "However, we do have concerns that some elements of the legislation do not provide adequate protection for some wetlands, nor ensure an adequate process for permitting."

Agreeing with many of the concerns identified by the Wisconsin Wetlands Association, DU identified two main areas of concern in the legislation: failure to protect exceptional wetlands and lack of adherence to "avoid, minimize, mitigate" sequence inherent in the federal Clean Water Act

"DU is concerned that there is no longer reference to highest-quality or exceptional wetlands," said Swenson. "The proposed legislation has an objective to conserve more and better wetlands. This will be difficult to do if we allow the highest-quality wetlands to be negatively impacted."

The bills also do not adhere to "avoid, minimize, mitigate" sequence when dealing with wetland permitting. "DU does not support de facto mitigation as a first step in dealing with wetland impacts," Swenson said. "But we do support a mitigation and in lieu fee program to deal with situations where wetland impacts cannot be avoided or minimized. We encourage more flexibility in these programs to ensure wetland losses are successfully mitigated, and that a net gain of wetland values results from the permitting process."

Among DU's other points regarding mitigation is a strong support for public access for hunting and other outdoor recreation. Nearly 4 million people hunt, fish and watch wildlife in Wisconsin each year, spending nearly $4 billion in pursuit of these hobbies. Encouraging public access on mitigated wetlands means a win-win for wetland habitat and for the state's economy.

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