ANOTHER VIEWPOINT: Wetlands task force offers hope

This editorial was originally published Sunday in the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette.

No legislation drew as much of the general public’s attention and heat in the last session of the Indiana General Assembly as Senate Bill 389. Gov. Eric Holcomb signed the law weakening protection of wetlands over the objections of more than 100 groups, including some unexpected critics.

Representatives of Holcomb’s own environmental and natural resources agencies testified against the legislation.

But the controversy the bill generated also served to improve it. Rep. Harold Slager, R-Brookston, offered an amendment to create a wetlands task force to study the issues that prompted the legislation. Holcomb made appointments to the task force last week. Dr. Indra Frank, environmental health and water policy director for the Hoosier Environmental Council, is pleased with the new panel.

“I definitely feel like this is a good thing,” she said in a phone interview. “Indiana has already lost more than 85% of its original wetlands. And the remaining wetlands are critical to our water system. … Wetlands soak up excess stormwater; they reduce flooding; they recharge groundwater; they purify water and they serve as critical habitat for wildlife in Indiana. Any given property owner or developer (is) going to be concerned just with what they want to do on their own property. So, a task force like this is essential. It brings together a full array of stakeholders who can look at the cumulative impact.”

The Indiana Builders Association played a key role in the bill’s introduction, and its current board president, Fort Wayne developer Jeff Thomas, is a member of the new task force. But the panel also includes representatives of environmental groups, such as White River Alliance.

“There are a lot of really knowledgeable people on this task force, and that does give me hope,” Frank said. “Having a developer on the task force — that’s part of having all the stakeholders present. But it also brings together a number of people who have worked on flooding issues; who’ve worked on habitat issues — who really know wetlands and wetland hydrology.”

Frank said an Aug. 30 court decision provides yet another reason for optimism.

“A federal court ruled that the Trump administration’s rule on Waters of the U.S. was damaging, and it vacated that rule,” she said. “So that sends us back to federal wetland protection that preceded 2015. That means more of Indiana’s wetlands are federally protected.”

Frank said opponents of SB 389 acknowledged a need to review and revise the state’s 18-year-old wetlands law. There are ways to make the permitting process less cumbersome and frustrating and to better protect wetlands, she said. The task force, which has until Nov. 1, 2022, to make recommendations, will look at isolated wetlands classification and how to incentivize preservation, for example.

It’s difficult to overcome the outsized influence of special interests in a legislature controlled by a supermajority party, but Indiana’s new wetlands law shows public pressure can blunt the worst effects and possibly improve worrisome public policy.

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