Diverse groups talk wetlands at Summit

By Joe Albert

Staff Writer

Bloomington, Minn. — While the pace of wetland loss in the state
has slowed in recent years, they’re still under fire and not
adequately protected by the state and federal laws meant to afford
them protection.

That was the attitude of many at the first Wetlands Summit last
Saturday in Bloomington, where more than 300 people sought to
identify the problems affecting the state’s wetlands, and figure
out solutions. The state has lost more than half of its wetlands,
and more than 90 percent in the prairie region.

The summit, an initiative of the Ducks, Wetlands and Clean Water
Rally held last April, was held at Normandale Community College in
Bloomington. Those attending included conservation leaders, agency
officials, hunters, farmers, and legislators.

During the first half of the all-day summit, representatives
from the Minnesota Board of Soil and Water Resources, Minnesota
Center for Environmental Advocacy, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
made presentations about various aspects of wetland history in the
state, as well as state and federal regulatory issues.

The second half was oriented toward action, and included
separate discussion about federal farm policy, private lands, and
the state’s Wetland Conservation Act and ditch policy. Participants
made recommendations for change, which will be written in the form
of a position paper and distributed to lawmakers before the
legislative session begins March 1.

State officials say conservation programs have added to the
state’s wetland inventory, and that there’s more demand than money
available for restoration and purchase of such lands. Still,
there’s no way to know for sure whether losses are outpacing
gains.

“We don’t have a good way of assessing the trends of wetlands in
Minnesota,” said Ron Harnack, executive director of BWSR. “Right
now, it’s a best guess.”

Wetland assessment and monitoring projects will kick off soon,
Harnack said.

The Wetland Conservation Act will be reviewed as part of
that.

A Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy report released
two days before the summit said the act, through exemptions, allows
too many activities that degrade or destroy wetlands, and isn’t
enforced strongly enough.

In the breakout session, Dave Weirens, of BWSR, defending the
law, said: “It is administered properly by local governments. The
law is currently performing” as it is written.

Don Dinndorf, a conservation lobbyist when the act passed in
1991, said most citizens wrongly assume that state and federal
regulations are taking care of wetlands.

“There are a whole lot of leaks in the bucket that’s holding
wetlands these days,” he said.

Bill Barton, of the Sierra Club and Izaak Walton League, said
Minnesota’s wetlands must be tracked more accurately, and that they
should be classified based on a system that better takes into
account their quality.

Others agreed with Barton that wetland quality, especially in
terms of wetland replacement required under the Wetland
Conservation Act, should be a higher priority.

“Our system is out of date,” he said. “Let’s do a better job of
accounting for quality.”

Participants in the Wetland Conservation Act session offered a
number of ideas for improving the law. The most popular
recommendations included reducing or eliminating exemptions to the
conservation act; increasing education and enforcement of the act,
including making it a priority for all state conservation officers;
and making it easier for citizens to get involved in wetlands
issues, like requiring early notification when a project would
affect a wetland.

On the federal side, Bob Whiting, chief of the U.S. Army Corps
of Engineers regulatory branch in St. Paul, said despite laws meant
to ensure no net loss of wetlands, they’re still being lost, albeit
at a slower rate today than in the past.

He noted that while the Corps seeks to have affected wetlands
replaced with others that offer the same function, like habitat,
that often doesn’t happen. Instead, wetlands often are replaced
based on acreage.

“Replacing acres does not equal replacing functions,” Whiting
said. “It’s trading apples for oranges.”

Whiting also pointed out the need for greater enforcement. He
told the story of the Corps giving a Wisconsin man a permit for
work he had already completed. The permit included a provision that
the man donate 10 acres of his land for a city park. The Corps
didn’t follow up on the permit, and the city called 18 years later,
wondering why the land hadn’t been transferred.

Those discussing the federal Farm Program recommended capping
commodity payments and spending the savings on conservation. They
also called for a grassroots effort to influence the Farm Bill in
2007 and make it more conservation friendly.

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