Taking the Wet out of Wetlands

"STAKEHOLDERS" IN THE debate over Minnesota's wetlands law will be getting together this Thursday and Friday at a hotel in St. Cloud, kicking off what's likely to become one of the big debates of this year's legislative session. (Lawmakers convene on January 16 for a "short" session scheduled to last 10 weeks). Gov. Arne Carlson, who put together the roundtable discussion, says it's supposed to air arguments ahead of time toward the end of devising what he calls much-needed reform. The 5-year-old law has been tinkered with every year except last; that year, riding high on the 1994 elections' "angry-voter" tide, legislators almost succeeded in passing a measure that would have eliminated many of its key protections. The effort foundered at the last minute, held up in large part by veteran Rep. Willard Munger's (DFL-Duluth) House Environment Committee.

Actually, judging from polls, most of the public at large doesn't have much of a problem with the wetlands law. There is resentment among farmers, especially in southwestern Minnesota, where they've been dealing with an increasingly complex set of swamp-related regulations for years; there's also criticism from people who want to build roads (including logging roads), especially in northern Minnesota. But most of the heat comes from developers: Some of the last unbuilt land in the metro area is swampy, and so is much of the remaining lakeshore/vacation property that sells like hotcakes to retirement-minded baby boomers. Under the law, anyone who destroys or disturbs a wetland must theoretically (the practice is another story) pay to replace it somewhere else, a requirement developers say adds cost and red tape to projects.

Developers, farmers, and others who hate the wetlands law look to be well-represented in the governor's "stakeholders" list. Of the 40 people he invited to the roundtable, half a dozen come from farm groups alone, and another six represent the forestry, mining, utility, and real estate industries. Another two represent property-rights groups, which consider environmental regulation an undue intrusion into citizens' rights to develop their land to its fullest potential. Much of the rest of the panel is made up of various government agencies, including six commissioners from various counties; as it happens, at least three of them have also been active in the property-rights movement. By contrast, environmental and sporting groups between them get all of seven seats on the panel.

It should be an interesting two days in St. Cloud. Carlson's personal involvement suggests that some kind of wetlands law will pass this year (the governor doesn't tend to spend his political capital for nothing). And if his selection of roundtable participants suggests anything, it's that any compromise they're able to work out will lean much more heavily toward private interests than the current law does.

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