Wisconsin Republicans declare open season against environment

Lisa Neff, Staff writer

UPDATED: Republicans took target practice in early January after declaring open season on Wisconsin’s environmental resources.

The new year began with a bang, bang in the Capitol, where in just two days Republicans presided over a series of hearings on bills aimed at rolling back protections for air, land and water and at the same time curtailing the authority of local governments to protect natural resources.

“From developing on lake beds to filling in wetlands to taking away local governments’ authority to protect the health of their communities, the Legislature is starting 2016 off with a pretty loud message to Wisconsinites,” said Kerry Schumann, executive director of the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters. The message, Schumann said, is lawmakers “are putting the wishes of big developers, factory farms, frac sand mining companies and other polluting interests above the needs of their constituents.”

WLCV and the Sierra Club-John Muir Chapter, both nonprofit environmental advocacy groups, identified two measures of special concern — AB 600/SB 459, aka the “polluter grab bag,” and AB 582/SB 464, aka the “developer grab bag.”

Supporters of the measures say they protect and advance “property rights.” 

Opponents say they further erode protections for Wisconsin’s natural resources.

‘Polluter grab bag’

AB 600/SB 459 would allow developers to build on lake beds, provide incentives for developing a million acres of wetlands that lack federal protections and allow lakefront property owners to dredge up to three dump-truck loads of lakebed sediment every year.

The Assembly Committee on Environment and Forestry held a hearing Jan. 5 on the bill, which is backed by Americans for Prosperity, League of Wisconsin Municipalities, Waste Management, Wisconsin Builders Association, Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association and Wisconsin Realtors Association.

Registered opponents include WLCV, Clean Lakes Alliance, Clean Wisconsin, League of Women Voters, River Alliance, Sierra Club, Nature Conservancy, Wisconsin Association of Lakes, Wisconsin Land and Water Conservation Association and Wisconsin Wetlands Association.

“AB 600 undermines the public trust doctrine, allowing property owners on Wisconsin lakes, including the Great Lakes, to dredge material without any oversight and in most cases without even testing to make sure the dredged material is not contaminated,” said Bill Davis, director of the Sierra Club-John Muir Chapter. “And the bill gives away public lake bed.”

‘Developer grab bag’

AB 582/SB 464 would prohibit counties from placing moratoriums on new development. It also would prevent local governments from creating zoning requirements in response to a developer expressing an interest in locating there, according to the WLCV.

The measure would provide financial incentives to develop land that is held in conservation easements and allow developers to shop around for a judge if there is a challenge to a permit.

The Senate Committee on Insurance, Housing and Trade held a hearing on Jan. 5 on SB 464, which has the support of WEC Energy Group, Wisconsin Builders Association and Wisconsin Realtors Association.

Opponents include Clean Wisconsin, League of Women Voters, River Alliance, Sierra Club, the town of Saratoga and WLCV.

“The polluter and developer grab bags open the floodgates for developers, frac sand mining companies, factory farms and other special interests to make our water dirtier, fill in our wetlands and run roughshod over local communities and private citizens,” Schumann said.

Elizabeth Ward, conservation programs coordinator with the Sierra Club, added, “This bill provides more giveaways to major corporations, like frac sand and oil pipeline companies, and removes the rights of landowners across Wisconsin to enjoy their land.”

Also on the watch list this session …

• SB 479 was the subject of a Jan. 5 hearing held by the Senate Committee on Insurance, Housing and Trade. Backers include a union local — the Madison Area Builders Association.

Opponents maintain the measure would undermine Dane County’s authority on zoning and thus threaten local protections for wildlife and habitat. 

“This is another example of the state legislators attacking local control and making decisions that should be made at the local level,” said Dave Blouin, chair of Sierra’s Four Lakes Group.

• SB 434 would open up more state forests to timber production. The bill also would prohibit the state Department of Natural Resources from offering guidance to property owners on wildlife action plans or requiring property owners to take action to protect species at risk.

The state’s lobbying records show the Sierra Club joining WLCV in opposing the measure, which has support from Great Lakes Timber Professionals Association, Wisconsin Alliance of Forest Owners, Wisconsin Counties Association, Wisconsin County Forests Association, Wisconsin Land and Water Conservation Association, Wisconsin Towns Association and Wisconsin Wildlife Federation.

The Senate Committee on Sporting Heritage, Mining and Forestry held a hearing on the bill on Jan. 5.

• SB 432 would promote privatizing Wisconsin’s water by allowing communities to sell water utilities to private out-of-state companies. The Senate Committee on Workforce Development, Public Works and Military Affairs held a Jan. 5 hearing on the measure, which is backed by some labor groups and opposed by environmental groups.

• AB 603 would prohibit counties from enacting stronger protections for waters if local authorities determined state minimum standards were insufficient.

The Assembly Committee on Natural Resources and Sporting Heritage held a hearing on Jan. 6 on the bill, which is opposed by WLCV, Clean Lakes Alliance, Clean Wisconsin, River Alliance and Wisconsin Association of Lakes.

• SB 288 would remove the nuclear moratorium, lifting barriers to constructing new nuclear power plants in the state. It includes the requirement that new plants have a plan of action for dealing with hazardous waste.

Additionally, the bill would put nuclear energy on the list of preferred energy options in the state — despite high costs associated with production and major concerns about the disposal of waste and dismantling of outdated facilities.

The Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy held a hearing Jan. 5 on the measure, which has overwhelming support from energy companies, labor unions and trade associations.

Opponents include the Citizens Utility Board, League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, and environmental groups.

Action alert

Track Wisconsin environmental issues at conservationvoters.org, the website for the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters.

Track legislation at notify.legis.wisconsin.gov.