Posted on Tue, Jan. 18, 2005
Minnesota still losing wetlands
1991 law meant to protect them lacks oversight, agencies say
BY CHRIS NISKANEN
Minnesota continues to lose thousands of acres of wetlands to drainage or filling, despite laws designed to achieve no net loss of those lands, according to two new state reports.
The reports, one by the Department of Natural Resources and the other by the Pollution Control Agency, support long-held suspicions by wildlife managers and conservationists that laws aren't fully protecting Minnesota's wetlands.
"Willard Munger would be rolling over in his grave,'' said Ron Nargang, state conservation director for the Nature Conservancy. A Duluth lawmaker who died in 1999, Munger championed wetlands protection and the state's landmark 1991 Wetland Conservation Act.
The act requires destroyed wetlands to be replaced at an acre-to-acre ratio and, in some cases, at a 2-to-1 ratio. But the DNR study shows that since 1995, more than 11,000 wetlands acres have been reported destroyed and only 6,000 replacement acres have been created. Exempted wetlands were responsible for half of the lost acreage, the study shows.
An unrelated MPCA study shows dramatic wetlands losses in the state's western "prairie pothole region,'' once famous for waterfowl populations. While studying wetlands in the Redwood River watershed in 2003, MPCA scientists discovered that 50 percent of the wetlands basins had disappeared from the landscape since the early 1980s.
Minnesota has no comprehensive method for tracking wetlands gains and losses. The two studies point up the need for oversight of wetlands protection, environmental leaders say.
The reports also could fuel a growing call for more wetlands protection and restoration. Several wetlands-friendly initiatives are before the Legislature this year.
"It shows we have a hell of a problem,'' said David Zentner of Duluth, past national president of the Izaak Walton League, a conservation group. "What we have here is a lack of accountability."
DEBATING WETLANDS LAW
Wetlands are known to reduce flooding, filter water impurities and provide habitat for wildlife. During the past century, Minnesota has lost 50 percent of its wetlands, and in heavily farmed areas, more than 90 percent of wetlands are gone.
That makes wetlands some of the most endangered wildlife habitat in Minnesota, experts say.
Wetlands are protected by myriad state and federal agencies and laws, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; the 2002 federal farm law; and the state's Board of Soil and Water Resources, which administers the Wetland Conservation Act.
Until the DNR study, no one knew whether state regulations were achieving their goal of holding wetlands acreage steady.
But some people question whether the study is a complete picture.
The study doesn't take into account other wetlands restoration programs, said Chris Radatz, public policy director for the Minnesota Farm Bureau.
Indeed, programs including the state's Reinvest in Minnesota program and the federal Conservation Reserve Program have resulted in 249,000 aces of wetlands restoration in the past several decades, said the DNR report's author, Doug Norris.
Norris also said the Wetland Conservation Act has discouraged many developers and farmers from destroying wetlands. He estimated that about 32,000 acres have been saved since 1995.
"If you look at all the other programs," Norris said, "there are a lot of wetlands that have been restored." But he also pointed out that the Wetland Conservation Act doesn't require destroyed exempt wetlands to be reported.
"If you look at the regulation side of the act, the replacing of drained and filled wetlands, and if you add in what is exempt, we are not getting to no net loss,'' Norris said. And many more acres are probably being destroyed without being counted, he said.
No net loss was the true intent of the state's Wetland Conservation Act, according to those who helped formulate the bill.
"There's no doubt that was the goal, especially when you see 2-to-1 (replacement) rates in the law,'' said Nargang, who in the early 1990s worked for the Department of Natural Resources. "I testified on it. It was the thrust of the act."
In 1989, President George H.W. Bush announced a no-net-loss national policy. But Minnesota lawmakers, including Munger, a Democrat, and former Rep. Marcus Marsh, a Republican, thought that additional state protections were needed.
The 1991 act pitted pro-wetlands lawmakers and environmentalists against developers and agricultural interests. The law was fully implemented in 1994, but the battle continued until 1996, when more exemptions were added. Many exemptions were designed to provide relief for developers in northern Minnesota, an area with 80 percent of its wetlands remaining.
"As bad or good as it is, there is no doubt that WCA has saved wetlands," said Tom Kalahar, who works for the Renville County Soil and Water Conservation Board. "We're light-years ahead of what some states are doing. But could it have saved more? Absolutely."
TIME TO RETOOL THE LAW?
One of the act's earliest supporters was Gov. Arne Carlson, who is recognized in conservation circles for his support of wetlands protections.
If the law isn't achieving no net loss, Carlson said, it should be fixed.
"We should revisit it and get it back to the concept that we wanted,'' he said of the no-net-loss goal. "There's no way you can protect the ultimate quality of water unless you protect wetlands. There are a large variety of lands in Minnesota that properly belong to nature."
The executive director of the Board of Soil and Water Resources, Ron Harnack, said it might be time to examine the wetlands law, but not until more studies are done.
He suggested that lawmakers wait until next year's session, when his agency's biennial report will be available.
Radatz said his organization wouldn't support any tightening of the Wetland Conservation Act.
"Our members would say that what regulations we have in place between state and federal are adequate."
The Wetland Conservation Act has been on shaky footing in recent years. A handful of lawmakers recently proposed eliminating the 2-for-1 wetlands replacement formula required for building roads, a restriction they argued was slowing highway building. Gov. Tim Pawlenty says he repelled the effort.
Faced with budget cuts, the Board of Water and Soil Resources in September proposed undoing the act altogether, which Pawlenty also opposed. The agency could face more cuts this year and next, a move conservation groups oppose.
The study of the Redwood River watershed wetlands yielded startling and unexpected results for scientists from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
It also adds ammunition for conservation groups and wildlife managers who believe farmland practices have dramatically altered the western Minnesota landscape.
The scientists in 2003 set out to study the quality of the wetlands. But when they compared satellite images of wetlands from the early 1980s with what they saw during field trips, many wetlands basins had vanished.
Overall, the scientists estimated, about half of the "depressional" wetlands — those not found along creeks and rivers — had disappeared since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had conducted an inventory in the early 1980s.
The losses were more acute, about 70 percent, for wetlands smaller than 2 acres. "It's fair to say we were surprised,'' said researcher John Genet.
The Redwood River watershed spans about 700 square miles. The watershed includes major parts of Lyon and Redwood counties and lesser parts of Lincoln, Pipestone and Murray counties. The watershed is characteristic of the state's western prairie pothole region, which has a rich waterfowl hunting tradition.
Minnesota duck hunters say 2004 was the worst season in 40 years.
The scientists say it's possible some wetlands were legally destroyed because the federal inventory predated the Wetland Conservation Act. But the study nonetheless shows vast changes in a landscape once dotted with wildlife-rich wetlands.
"We've seen a lot of literature about how things have changed since the 1800s, but this high of losses since 1980 aren't talked about much," said Dan Helwig, supervisor of the Pollution Control Agency's biological monitoring unit. "We can certainly see gross changes occurring to the landscape."
The 2002 federal farm law discourages wetlands drainage by threatening to withhold federal payments from farmers who drain wetlands, a provision known as "Swampbuster." But Helwig and others say there's no data showing whether Swampbuster is achieving its goal in Minnesota.
That's why the state will initiate an assessment and monitoring program soon, with a $248,000 grant from the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Still, it could be several years before there's a complete accounting of wetlands losses and gains, regulators say.
In the meantime, the Izaak Walton League has put wetlands at the front of its state agenda, Zentner said, and other conservation groups may be joining the cause.
"We have to have the guts to hold our government accountable,'' said Zentner, who fought for the Wetland Conservation Act. "There's general acknowledgment that things aren't healthy anymore, and duck hunters are saying 'Enough is enough.' Willard Munger would say (to government), 'I counted on you to get things done, and you didn't.' "
Chris Niskanen can be reached at email@example.com or 651-228-5524.