Minnesota still losing wetlands
By Chris Niskanen
Published January 18th, 2005
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
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
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
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
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
Until the DNR study, no one knew whether state regulations
were achieving their goal of holding wetlands acreage
But some people question whether the study is a complete
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 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
"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
"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
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
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
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
"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
"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.' "