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Sue Schumacher can be forgiven for viewing southeastern Wisconsin's shallow cattail marshes, sedge meadows and forested wetlands with all the pride of a doting mother.
"I get a good feeling when I see a wetland that at one time was slated to be filled but wasn't because we either denied the project or altered it in a way to avoid or minimize damage," Schumacher says. "I can look at that wetland and know I had a hand in protecting it."
She and colleagues in DNR's habitat protection program are the keepers of Wisconsin's nationally renowned wetland protection program. They are charged with casting the deciding vote when individuals, companies and governments need permits to build ponds, buildings, roads, or some other project that potentially alters wetlands.
In the last decade, they've succeeded in cutting permitted wetland losses by 330 percent while still allowing 86 percent of applicants to complete the projects they want. Often as not, the projects get done more quickly and inexpensively with less harm to the environment.
Schumacher and the 51 other water management specialists covering Wisconsin's 72 counties work with 10,000 landowners every year. In the past decade, they've seen a four-fold increase in applications to build ponds in wetlands, and similar growth in requests to start waterfront projects. "People realize they need permits and they are trying to comply," she says.
That change in public attitude has been a long time coming. For much of the state's first 150 years, wetlands were considered wastelands and mosquito breeding grounds. Laws and policies encouraged swamp reclamation. Settlers received subsidies and tax breaks to drain and fill wetlands for farm fields, ports and cities. New drainage technology in the 1940s spurred destruction of an additional 3 million acres of wetlands; only 5.3 million of the 10 million acres of wetlands present before statehood remained by 1980.
By that time, dramatic declines in waterfowl populations, combined with a growing body of scientific literature, wakened the state and nation to wetland values. Wetlands provide crucial habitat for native fish, plant and wildlife species; store water to prevent flooding; buffer runoff; protect water quality; provide natural beauty and sustain recreational opportunities for boaters, canoeists, hunters and birdwatchers.
"We've come a long way in reducing wetland losses and that's directly associated with gains in knowledge and the science of wetlands' true values," says Dale Simon, chief biologist in the habitat protection program.
Federal laws in the late 1970s started requiring people to seek permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for projects potentially affecting wetlands. To further reduce acreage lost through this permit process, Wisconsin sought greater say in federal decisions. In 1991, Wisconsin became the first state to require decisions on federal wetland permits to meet state wetland water quality standards. Today, applicants for a federal wetland permit must demonstrate to DNR habitat protection staff that they've tried to avoid harming wetlands. If an applicant shows that wetlands will be minimally affected, then their Corps wetland permit may be certified.
The requirement has helped cut wetland losses in permitted projects to an average of 300 acres a year. It has also brought applicants in early. Now, developers and others are willing to attend workshops to learn what they need to do to protect the environment and get their permit.
We've spent 20 years building protection programs, says Scott Hausmann, who leads the DNR's wetland team that recently developed a new strategic plan. Those will continue to be the backbone of our wetland efforts, but we recognize that 75 percent of wetlands are in private hands, and we need to provide those owners with the tools and the means to manage those wetlands.
That education starts with teaching people that wetlands are much more diverse than a marsh with ducks, says Pat Trochlell, a DNR wetland ecologist. "Wetlands include floodplain forest, bogs, sedge meadows and other areas people don't readily recognize as wetlands. Further, they provide other benefits than waterfowl habitat."
A low spot in a backyard that collects spring rain could be an ephemeral wetland that provides critical habitat for salamander reproduction, she says.
To encourage people to protect, restore and manage such wetlands, DNR strategists propose education and grants to help share the costs of wetland restoration, and reducing taxes on wetland property and other conservation lands.
Plans also envision investigating new methods to map wetlands onto distortion-free photographs and to increase their availability to the public. Wisconsin Wetland Inventory maps show wetlands statewide. They are being used by county zoning planners, realtors and prospective property owners who want to know if they're buying a wetland, according to Lois Simon, inventory coordinator.
The strategic plan also challenges DNR to work smarter in its own restoration efforts. Scientists know how to get water back on the land, but they don't know if it's possible to create a complex series of wetlands like those the glaciers left behind 10,000 years ago.
"There's no way we can go back to pre-European settlement times," Trochlell says. "But we want to protect the wetlands we have, and to restore high-quality wetlands to areas where they once existed and where it makes sense."
Lisa Gaumnitz writes for DNR's water management programs in Madison.