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When it comes to battles over natural resources policy, efforts to change the state’s Wetlands Conservation Act (WCA) usually aren’t resolved overnight.

Surprise wetlands bill may get swamped

GOP Sen. Gary Dahms is co-sponsoring a bill to ease a requirement on replacing lost wetlands. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Negotiating changes to hot-button law is usually a protracted affair

When it comes to battles over natural resources policy, efforts to change the state’s Wetlands Conservation Act (WCA) usually aren’t resolved overnight.

Local governments and businesses, especially in marshy parts of the state, complain that the strictures of the WCA hinder their development plans — a position that regularly puts them at odds with the state’s environmental lobby. When the sides work out a compromise, as they did in 2007, it’s usually a couple of years in the making.

So lobbyists from several industries and state agency officials were surprised last week when a controversial WCA bill was introduced without much prior discussion.

The wetlands conservation law, which was enacted in 1991, reacted to the dramatic loss of wetlands around the state by establishing a no-net-loss policy. When landowners drain wetlands, they are required to replace those former sloughs according to ratios that are set in law.

Bill would exempt larger land parcels

With the March 16 committee deadline approaching, the House and Senate are giving close scrutiny to a proposal that would loosen a controversial aspect of the WCA dealing with exemptions. Certain types of small wetland conversions are referred to in state law as “de minimis.” Those small pieces of land are exempt from the WCA’s no-net-loss requirements. A bill sponsored by Rep. Carolyn McElfatrick, R-Deer River, and Sen. Gary Dahms, R-Redwood Falls, would increase the size of land parcels that fall under the de minimis category and thus could be drained without replacement.
The House Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee last week laid over the proposal for possible inclusion in an omnibus bill. On Tuesday the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee passed Dahm’s bill on a voice vote and re-referred it to the Senate State Government Innovation Committee.

McElfatrick said a farmer from her district in Aitkin County brought the issue to her attention because he was having a hard time obtaining approval to make a change to his land that would allow him to gain access to a field. McElfatrick said the regulations are “so restrictive that it can be difficult for farmers to do even minor actions on their own property that are necessary in counties that have a very high percentage of wetlands.”

Although the farmer’s problem was resolved at the local level, she said lawmakers need to resolve the policy issue.

“The counties with abundant wetland percentages are usually not farmed intensively,” McElfatrick said, “and I believe we can afford some slight modifications in the regulations in these areas.”
McElfatrick said the bill doesn’t come at the expense of the environment.

“We have a responsibility as a state to protect our wetlands,” she said. “But as a state we also have a responsibility to look after our small farmers. I feel this bill allows us to do both.”

Some rural Democrats support bill

Dahms has some support from rural DFLers. Sens. Keith Langseth of Glyndon and Rod Skoe of Clearbrook are co-sponsors. But the bill is opposed by DFL lawmakers who have closer ties to environmental groups. Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, assailed the bill during a recent committee hearing. He said the proposal works at cross purposes with the Legacy amendment, in which voters increased the state sales tax in part to spend more on acquiring hunting and fishing land.

“What this bill will do is encourage draining of wetlands, which we may actually be in the position of having to go back and restore with public [Legacy] money. Bad bill,” Hansen said.

Hansen complained that the proposal isn’t the product of negotiations among the various stakeholders. He said lawmakers should pause because Minnesota voters stated their favor to increase wetlands when they passed the Legacy amendment in 2008.

Lance Ness, president of the Fish and Wildlife Legislative Alliance, wrote a letter to the Senate Environment Committee in which he said the proposal undermines the prior, agreed-upon changes.
“The Wetlands Conservation Act’s goal is no net loss,” Ness said. “This is the current state policy. These bills undermine that. Allowing additional exemption for more types of wetland drainage will result in increased loss.”

Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Nelson Township, however, said the compromise that was enacted in 2007 can be improved upon. He said the streamlining of classifications and descriptions in the law is much needed.

“When a compromise creates a system that’s so complicated that no one can understand it, you encourage people to avoid the system and go ahead with what they want to do and get permission later, or forgiveness later,” Torkelson said. “This is ridiculously complicated.”

In a related bill, also proposed by Dahms and opposed by Ness, farmers whose land meets the criteria for federal farm bill funding would be exempt from the WCA. Bruce Kleven, a lobbyist whose agricultural clients include the Minnesota Wheat Growers Association, said there are federal programs that forbid draining land, making the WCA redundant. Senate DFLers, who unsuccessfully tried to table the bill in the Environment Committee, questioned the amount of federal enforcement that is given to the program, which is known as swamp busters.

Aside from the controversial aspects of the WCA, there are big picture issues at play on water policy this session that are generating consensus. Torkelson has proposed legislation that steers the state toward a new type of local water planning. Torkelson said his bill was introduced in 2011 and was discussed by numerous interested parties during the interim. Although the bill doesn’t force local governments to change, it creates incentives for local governments to do planning that is watershed-specific rather than on a county-by-county basis.

“In the state of Minnesota we’re moving to planning based on watershed planning,” Torkelson said. “Right now our water plans are based on county borders, and the value of those plans is somewhat limited by the fact that they don’t really reflect the move to watershed-based plans.”

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