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Great Lakes Article:

Wetlands valuable, but unprotected
Seth Slabaugh
The Star Press

MUNCIE - Wetlands are important to our quality of life, says Frank Bracken, a Ball State University trustee and a director of the Indiana chapter of The Nature Conservancy.

"Wetlands have a value and a function," Bracken said Tuesday night during a forum recognizing National Geography Awareness Week at Minnetrista Cultural Center.

Fellow panelist Joe Russell, a farmer, noted that state and federal governments "were very friendly to draining wetlands in years past." He added, "The government has done kind of a flip-flop on wetlands."

According to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, as a result of draining and filling, wetlands today cover less than 4 percent of Indiana, down from 25 percent during the 1700s.

According to the National Wetland Inventory, Delaware County had 5,657 acres of wetlands in the 1980s.

Indiana has no wetland protection laws, said panelist Emily Kress, director of the division of outdoor recreation at the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.

"Not that we haven't tried," she added.

IDEM's attempts to get rules adopted to protect wetlands have met opposition from Indiana Farm Bureau, Indiana Manufacturers Association, Indiana Builders Association, utility companies, steel companies, local government, waste management firms and others.

IDEM's efforts to regulate wetlands also were successfully challenged in a Marion County court by an Allen County developer. IDEM appealed to the Indiana Supreme Court, which has not ruled.

Wetland rule-making by IDEM and the Indiana Water Pollution Control Board was halted last spring by the Indiana General Assembly, which referred the issue to the Environmental Quality Service Council (EQSC) for recommendations.

EQSC issued recommendations this fall.

"There seemed to be a general consenus to establish clear authority for IDEM to regulate wetlands that are no longer federally protected," said Tim Method, IDEM deputy commissioner, in an interview Wednesday.

Nearly 2 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, ruled the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lacked authority to regulate wetlands that were isolated from navigable waters of the United States.

One of EQSC's recommendations reads, "It is in the public interest of the state that an isolated wetland statute be adopted in the next session of the General Assembly to resolve this uncertainty. If the General Assembly does not act, the future of Indiana isolated wetlands and land development policy is likely to be decided in a random, protracted series of legal fights between IDEM and the varioues stakeholders."

The EQSC also had been asked by legislators to make other recommendations, including a state wetland policy, which EQSC determined would not be possible before the coming session of the Legislature.

Contact news reporter Seth Slabaugh at 213-5834.

Wetlands not wastelands

Once viewed as wastelands, wetlands are now known as nature's sponge and nature's kidneys. They do the following:

  • Soak up flood waters

  • Absorb farm fertilizer and septic system runoff

  • Provide rest stops for migratory birds

  • Provide habitat for rare, threatened and endangered plants and animals

  • Provide places to hunt, trap, fish and view nature

  • Provide highly valuable hardwood lumber.
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