TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — An effort to drastically curtail legal protection of Michigan wetlands fell short Friday as the Legislature approved a scaled-down bill that continues to require permits for degrading many bogs, marshes and similar waterways but also makes key concessions to developers.
The measure enacted in the waning hours of a frantic lame-duck session rewrote a previous version that critics warned could leave at least 550,000 acres of wetlands vulnerable to being drained, filled or otherwise damaged, along with 4,200 lakes and thousands of miles of streams.
The final bill discarded most of the regulatory exemptions the earlier one had included. But some groups still urged Republican Gov. Rick Snyder to veto it before he leaves office at the end of December, saying it would weaken the Department of Environmental Quality’s ability to shield waterways that provide wildlife habitat, prevent flooding and filter out contaminants.
“It’s a net loss to the environment,” said Nick Occhipinti, government affairs director for the Michigan League of Conservation Voters.
Farmers, builders and property rights advocates have long complained that too many wetlands are off-limits to development and that regulators are heavy-handed and unreasonable.
Much of the debate focuses on how to determine whether particular wetlands are eligible for protection, especially those not directly connected to a navigable water body such as a lake or river.
A bill sponsored by Sen. Tom Casperson, an Escanaba Republican, sought to substantially narrow the definition of protected wetlands. It passed the Senate but drew fierce objections from organizations such as the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, along with those representing hunting and fishing interests.
Early Friday morning, the House — and later the Senate — approved a substitute version that left the protected wetland definition largely intact. It also dropped provisions to deregulate inland lakes.
But it trimmed the list of “rare and imperiled” wetlands that would be assured preservation, deleting several types of swamps and the northern wet mesic prairie. Other new provisions require the DEQ to take extra steps when denying applications for permits to degrade wetlands and when sanctioning violators.
The bill also would enable developers and landowners to recoup some costs from the DEQ if they successfully challenge its rulings, which Occhipinti said could make the department more reluctant to rigorously enforce the law.
“It’s leaps and bounds better than it was, but still not something we’re out there supporting,” said Tom Zimnicki of the Michigan Environmental Council.
The Michigan Farm Bureau supported the final version, government relations manager Matt Smego said.
“Our primary interest is having a clear understanding of what a wetland is,” Smego said, adding that landowners applying for permits don’t want to be told by regulators that “you’ll find out if it’s a wetland when we tell you.”