Gov. Scott Walker signed a contentious bill Wednesday that helps developers win wetland construction permits, achieving one of Republican lawmakers' key goals for this legislative session.
Walker signed the measure to a standing ovation at a Wisconsin Realtors Association meeting in Madison. The governor said the bill balances economic growth and wetland preservation.
"The two can go hand-in-hand," Walker said.
A host of Wisconsin business groups, including the realtors association and Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, pushed hard for the new law, saying it would boost expansion and job creation efforts. Environmentalists countered that the state stands to lose untold acres of wetlands, which would destroy fragile ecosystems and open the door to widespread flooding.
"Allowing more people to build in wetlands today creates more flood victims and disaster costs tomorrow," Rep. Brett Hulsey, D-Madison, said in a statement. "The reason they call them wetlands is because they are wet."
Wetlands are home to a multitude of wild species, including ducks, fish and reptiles. They also soak up rainwater, which helps prevent flooding and filters pollutants from runoff before it reaches — and potentially contaminates — lakes, rivers and streams.
Wisconsin has lost 5 million acres of its wetlands, nearly half of those in the state, to construction and agriculture over the last 150 years, according to state Department of Natural Resources data. The DNR said its current permitting process, which calls for developers to avoid and minimize damage, is the key to reversing the trend.
The new law, though, dramatically reworks that process, creating a two-tiered construction permit system for wetlands. Developers can apply to the agency for a general permit or an individual permit for more specialized projects.
Individual permit applicants must also submit mitigation plans, which could include buying credits from groups that have already restored wetlands, paying the DNR to support the agency's wetland restoration work or enhancing or restoring wetlands within a half-mile of the proposed project or within the surrounding watershed.
While submitting a plan won't guarantee a permit, the law can bolster a developer's case for one because it provides another way to show the DNR it can offset a project's impact.
Conservationists are in an uproar over the mitigation language. They argue mitigation work doesn't always result in quality restoration, and fear the DNR will stop pushing developers to avoid or minimize damage and instead accept their plans.
"(The law) was done in a very partisan manner," said Amber Meyer Smith, government relations director for environmental advocacy group Clean Wisconsin, "that does not serve the state or its natural resources well."
Associated Press writer Barbara Rodriguez contributed to this report.