A close look at how three new bills in the 2016 State Legislature would change

the water and landscape of Wisconsin


An analysis by Karl Fate
Rhinelander, WI


Jan. 13, 2016--First, it was the Iron Mining Law (Act 1, 2013) that reversed a long-standing legislative commitment to clean air and water by assuming that adverse impacts to the environment are necessary and even permissible. Then it was Act 55, added at the last minute to the budget bill of 2015-16, without public hearings, that in one stroke rubbed out all the hard work done by county governments across the state to protect their lakes and shorelines, and severely hampered the public’s ability to advocate for lake protection at the county government level.

Now we have three new bills that directly assault Wisconsin’s environmental legacy: AB 600/SB 459, AB 582/SB 464, and SB 493. These bills are complex. They make sweeping, radical changes to our current laws, and create considerable conflict that may take years to sort out. Ranging from iron mining to frac sand mining, to shoreline development, to fish farms, these bills represent extreme catering to special interests. This would be bad enough if it were merely being perpetrated on the taxpayer’s dime, but the cost to the people of Wisconsin and to society is much greater.

These bills threaten Wisconsin’s water laws and wetland protections, including the Public Trust Doctrine that protects our navigable waters for all citizens to use and enjoy, and they limit public involvement by making it harder for the public to challenge negative outcomes. Local control will be severely diminished.

If these bills are passed, Wisconsin’s cherished natural beauty and resources will become unrecognizable. We will have a very different-looking state: lakes will be dirtier, shorelines and riparian areas more developed and degraded, groundwater will be at risk of toxic pollution. In short, our beloved forests, streams and bodies of water will be sacrificed to the special interests of mining, fraking, large-scale farming and aquaculture.

Following is a summary, based on analysis provided by the Legislative Reference Bureau, of specific ways in which these three bills, if passed, will reshape our state’s environment.

Sen. Tom Tiffany's three-pronged attack on Wisconsin's water resources

We reported upon a study done in our area had demonstrated that ordinances limiting shoreline development density could improve esthetic appeal as measured by a positive impact upon frontage lot values, more than offsetting restraints in development. It was also found that 200 feet minimum frontage limits would serve to preserve both clean water and scenic beauty.

By Rick Foral
Oneida County Lakes and Rivers Association
Presented at OCLRA's Annual Meeting, June 12, 2015


​​In early 2014, faced with the challenge of encouraging Oneida County to adopt SPOs (Shoreland Protection Ordinances) that are more protective than those spelled out in NR 115, we sought to shift the conversation from complex ordinance details to a place where we could establish common ground with a wide range of community decision-makers. We felt that we could all agree that the quality of life in the Northwoods is dependent upon a strong local economy. I worked with Tim Brown and Bob Martini to assemble a presentation that emphasized the primary role that our natural environment and especially our lakes play in our dominant tourist/visitor dependent commerce. We set out to prove that the health of our lakes has a strong influence upon the economy of our area.

We established Oneida County's attractiveness as a destination for visitors by comparing Oneida to some regional neighbors: 

We cited a comprehensive study done in Vilas County that set out to determine the economic impact upon the value of lake property when lake quality is seriously compromised by an invasive species (EWM). The study found that when lake quality was discovered to be compromised, lakefront property values were dramatically impacted, further degrading both the local economy and the local tax base.
 
With these and other studies cited, we concluded that:

  • Lake users and property owners alike contribute significantly to the local economy.
  • Lakefront properties provide out of proportion to the residential tax base.
  • Lakefront property values are sensitive to lake clarity and lake health.
  • A delicate balance exists among lake quality, sustainable lakeshore development, and lakeshore property values.
  • The vibrancy of the Northwoods economy rests upon managing that balance.
  • The primary tool for counties like Oneida is the latitude allowed for developing and enforcing SPOs unique to lake-rich counties.


Today, we may find that these concepts could also benefit from efforts to reach common understanding:

  • The Wisconsin Public Trust Doctrine - The state is obliged to manage water resources with the public interest above private interest.
  • The Lakes belong to us all.
  • To secure lake health, the lake must be seen as a part of a watershed eco-system.
  • It is more cost effective to preserve a lake than to rehab it.

In addition, we acknowledged the significant influence that second home owners bring to our local economy. Measures of which include: 

We cited a 2003 study conducted in the Brainerd, Minnesota lakes area (similar to our area) that studied the impact of water clarity upon property values. The study found that:

We reported upon a study done in our area had demonstrated that ordinances limiting shoreline development density could improve esthetic appeal as measured by a positive impact upon frontage lot values, more than offsetting restraints in development. It was also found that 200 feet minimum frontage limits would serve to preserve both clean water and scenic beauty.Type your paragraph here.

Selected Findings From 'Protecting Our Lakes to Protect Our Economy'

By Al Gedicks
Executive Secretary of the Wisconsin Resources Protection Council


March, 2015--Gogebic Taconite’s (GTac’s) proposed mountaintop removal iron mine in the Penokee Hills is dead. On Feb. 28, GTac president Bill Williams announced it was closing its office in Hurley because the project was not feasible, citing the extensive wetlands at the mine site and the uncertainty about whether the mine would be permitted.

However, according to the law (Act 1) that GTac largely wrote, no such assurance is possible until the company has conducted the scientific studies that are necessary to determine whether the proposed mine will meet the requirements of the law.

An “unexpected proliferation of wetlands” found at the mine site

But the company never collected the data to find out how the mine would affect groundwater around the mine site. And they were surprised when their c extensive wetlands than they expected to find at the mine site.

If GTac had listened to what local citizens were saying about the wetlands or to the independent hydrogeologist employed by the Bad River Ojibwe, this would not have been a surprise. Instead, the company threatened legal action to prevent the tribe’s expert from identifying wetland areas in the mine site.

GTac did not want to be confused with the facts about the proposed mine

Tensions between GTac and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) became public in 2014 when the company objected to a DNR research document that listed some of the major environmental hazards of mining, including acid mine drainage, mercury contamination, and the fact that “six watersheds with a total surface area of 1300 square miles transect the Gogebic Range in Wisconsin and drain to Lake Superior.”

GTac spokesperson Bob Seitz objected to the report because “it just gives a laundry list of the kind of stuff you hear from protestors.”  Seitz accused DNR regulators of “overstepping their regulatory authority” and said GTac “can’t spend money on curiosities—there is a process and both sides have to respect it.” GTac’s dismissal of a scientific report as mere protest rhetoric goes against the Wisconsin tradition of common sense oversight of projects that can affect our drinking water, trout streams, wild rice beds, human health and Lake Superior itself.

Just to make sure this never happens again, the governor’s recent budget proposal cuts 66 DNR staff from the department’s science bureau, fisheries, forestry and education operations. DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp insists that the agency is not abandoning science. Just the scientists.

Apparently, mapping wetlands was a curiosity the company couldn’t afford to investigate despite the fact that the large amount of mine waste from the proposed mine would cover almost half of a 3,300 acres site in Iron County that contains hundreds of acres of wetlands and trout streams. Just southwest of this site are the headwaters of the Bad River watershed, which supports the 16,000-acre Kakagon-Bad River Sloughs and the largest natural wild rice bed in the Great Lakes basin.

Blaming the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) vs. Failure to Obtain a Social License to Operate

In addition to underestimating the amount of wetlands at the mine site, Bill Williams blamed federal oversight of wetlands for the company’s pullout from the project. A spokeswoman for Governor Scott Walker echoed Williams by blaming the EPA. “It’s unfortunate that the federal requirements for mitigating wetlands make it cost prohibitive for Gogebic to move forward at this time,” said Laurel Patrick.

Williams also pointed to concerns about the EPA’s action regarding the Pebble gold and copper mine in Alaska where the EPA told the company that its mine plan would do irreversible damage to one of the world’s most productive salmon fisheries. Six Ojibwe tribes asked EPA to conduct a similar independent review of the environmental effects of GTac’s proposed mine on federally-protected treaty rights and resources in Wisconsin. But the EPA declined to act on the tribal request.

Nevertheless, GTac was concerned with any federal oversight of the project. “We’ve seen the EPA step out against the Pebble Mine,” said Bill Williams.  “Are we on their radar?”

Yes, Mr. Williams, this project is on the radar for lots of us

Bill Williams admits that the EPA had done nothing to slow down the proposed mine. But Williams had legitimate cause for concern because the actions of his company have demonstrated that GTac cannot be trusted to disclose the unacceptable risks of this ill-conceived project. In other words, GTac failed to secure a social license to operate by ignoring the objections to this project from concerned citizens, tribes, environmental groups and local governments.

Former Democratic senator Bob Jauch responded to GTac’s announcement as follows: “This company manipulated the public, bought the legislature and co-opted them into participating in one of the biggest scams in Wisconsin history.”  Jauch accused Gov. Walker and Republican lawmakers who pushed for the mine of “genuflecting” to the mining company and  damaging the community by pitting neighbors against each other over the controversial project.

The organized opposition stopped this mine

What GTac, the governor and the Republican establishment will never admit is that this project was stopped by the organized and sustained grassroots action of Wisconsin’s 11 tribes, local communities and the state’s environmental and conservation community. Drawing inspiration and tactics from the successful opposition to the Crandon mine, this movement countered the massive financial contributions and political influence buying by GTac and Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce with public education, working with local government and support for treaty rights.

Cleaning up the mess GTac left behind: Here's how you can help

GTac is gone but they left behind legislation (Act 1) that seriously weakens environmental protections for any future mining project. A major priority for the Conservation Congress Spring Hearings in every county on April 13 at 7 pm will be to introduce resolutions to repeal the Iron Mining Law (Act 1). We need volunteers in every county to introduce these resolutions. For copies of the resolution and the location of the hearing, contact northlandiguana@gmail.com.

Issues That Affect our Clean Waters

Sen. Tiffany's Motion 520 will lead to overdeveloping and degrading our lakes
and will diminish our property rights

Organized opposition stopped the Gogebic Taconite mine,
but Act I remains, and the DNR is under siege

By Karl Fate
Rhinelander, WI
Reprinted by permission


March 10, 2015--It isn’t unusual to take important things for granted that we are used to being around and enjoying every day. It doesn’t require much contemplation, though, to understand the critical importance of our water resources here in the land of lakes.

The water resources of our state are threatened today unlike any time for several decades. This is a threat that has three prongs, and is embodied in the Iron Mining Bill that became law in 2013. This law was written substantially by a mining interest for Sen. Tiffany to author on their behalf.

The first prong of this threat is a challenge to the laws that have been vital to the protection of our water resources, most notably the Public Trust Doctrine, because the new law allows the filling of small ponds and streams which function as the headwaters for our larger water systems.

The underlying change that is designed to allow this is the complete reversal of legislative intent. Under former law, it was presumed that negative adverse impacts to the water resource were unnecessary. The legislative intent of this law is reversed to presume that the adverse impacts are necessary. Sen. Tiffany formally lied to citizens in his response to their testimony on the Bill. However, shortly after the Bill passed, in a rare moment of candor, Sen. Tiffany told reporters that the change in legislative intent was done so that "If the law is challenged and ends up in court, the judge needs to know it was the Legislature’s intent to allow adverse (environmental) impacts. That way, a judge can’t find fault if the environment is impacted." Protecting our water resources has always been a bi-partisan issue, at least to some degree, but today in Wisconsin we have an entire political party that aims to have those resources adversely impacted.

The laws that protect our waters evolved over decades and were dependent on vigorous public involvement. Public involvement also has been, and is, critical to enforcing those laws. The Iron Mining Bill severely limits public involvement. The restriction of public involvement is the second prong of the current threat to the water resources of our State.

Federal water laws are intended to be minimum standards that State’s can improve on to suit their particular interests in protecting their particular water resources. Likewise, county governments can improve on state law and the towns can improve on county law. Local control is weakened in the Iron Mining Law and Sen Tiffany has gone further in proposing to curtail the town’s police powers that protect the interests of the folks that actually live in a impacted area. Weakened local control is the third prong of the current threat to our water resources.

In Wisconsin today we have a close marriage between Big Money and Big Government. We can see this in the $700,000 that was funneled into the Walker Campaign from Gogebic Taconite, who was allowed to substantially write its own law. This close collaboration between Big Government and Big Money threatens more than our water resources. It also threatens our most cherished public processes necessary for an open society, and America’s best form of government, local control.

  • Any areas of a navigable water filled prior to 1975 will be allowed to be transferred from public to private ownership, and the riparian zone would be defined as extending to the line of navigation.
  • Regulation of navigable waters would no longer apply to artificial water bodies not connected to a natural water body and which do not discharge into a navigable waterway except as a result of storm events.
  • DNR may regulate and control the level and flow of water in all navigable waters for certain purposes.
  • The DNR would be required to issue a general permit for a riparian owner who wants to remove 30 cubic yards of material from the bed of an inland lake adjacent to the riparian owner’s property, and 100 cubic yards of material from the bed of outlying waters adjacent to the riparian owner’s property, once each calendar year.
  • Permit requirements for certain shoreland maintenance activities that are conducted in certain shoreland areas would be exempted.
  • Limits would be placed on the types of areas that the DNR may identify as possessing significant scientific value or considered as areas of special natural resource interest, and would be subject to approval by the Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules.
  • The definition would be changed for a boathouse as a structure used for one or more years for the storage of watercraft and associated materials, regardless of its current use.
  • A boathouse located beyond the OHWM of a navigable waterway could be expanded.
  • The DNR and a county shoreland zoning ordinance would not be allowed to prohibit the owner of a boathouse with a flat roof from using the roof as a deck, with certain stipulations.
  • The DNR would be prohibited from denying a boat shelter permit based on the distance the boat shelter would extend from the shore.
  • There would be several changes to seawall and riprap requirements.
  • The operation of an ATV on any navigable water or the exposed bed of a navigable water would be allowed under certain circumstances.
  • Exemptions would be allowed from the permitting requirement for any discharge into a wetland that is the result of maintaining a roadside ditch or sedimentation or a storm water detention basin and associated conveyance features.
  • For wetlands that are not subject to federal jurisdiction, representing 20 percent of Wisconsin’s wetlands, the DNR is required to limit its review of the impacts of wetland discharge compared to the current law which requires the least environmentally damaging practicable alternative.
  • Permit requirements for public utilities regarding navigable waters and wetlands would be streamlined, including eliminating any opportunity to object to and request a stay of a related DNR decision.
  • The DNR would not be allowed to prohibit construction of storm water management ponds in navigable or non-navigable artificial waterways to comply with non-point source water pollution performance standards.
  • AB 582 would invalidate any ordinance, resolution, or policy currently in effect inconsistent with the bill.
  • A county would specifically be prohibited from enacting a development moratorium.
  • How the Ordinary High Water Mark is determined would be changed, by allowing a professional land surveyor, rather than the county, to establish the OHWM relying on a map, plat, or survey prepared by a professional land surveyor that incorporates or approximates the OHWM, assuming that the DNR has not identified the OHWM on its internet site at the time the setback is measured.
  • Any ambiguity in a matter involving a zoning ordinance or shoreland zoning ordinance in favor of the free use of private property would be needed to be resolved by a court.
  • The definition of "undeveloped land" would be changed for tax purposes.
  • A permit applicant would be allowed to file for a substitution of a new hearing examiner rather the one assigned by the Division of Hearings and Appeals in the Department of Administration.
  • Aquaculture would be allowed to receive a general rather than individual permit to discharge dredged material into a wetland under 10,000 square feet as for agricultural purposes.
  • Other activities related to aquaculture would be exempted from an individual or general wetland permit.
  • Fish farms would be exempted from submitting to the DNR analysis of the practicable alternatives to the proposed wetland discharge that will not result in any other significant environmental consequences.
  • For the purpose of establishing a fish farm, a "natural body of water" would be defined as a spring, stream, pond, lake, or wetland that was historically in a natural state but may have been physically altered over time.
  • An exemption would be created to the general prohibition on using a natural water body as a fish farm in certain circumstances.
  • An exemption would be created for fish farms with a dam on a navigable a stream from allowing at least 25 percent of the natural low flow of water of the stream to pass through the dam.
  • Conditions that the DNR can put on discharge permits for fish farms would be limited.
  • Limits would be placed on DNR variances from applicable water quality standards.
  • Some fish farm water withdrawals from the Great Lakes Compact would be exempted.
  • Fish farms would be treated as an "agricultural practice" for exemption from non-point source performance standards, unless cost-sharing is available to the operator.
  • Fish farms would be treated as an "agricultural practice" for other activities and loan guarantees.
  • Aquacultural uses of land would be exempted from requiring a DNR permit to construct, dredge, or enlarge an artificial water body that connects with a navigable waterway or that is located within 500 feet of the ordinary high-water mark of an existing navigable waterway, or to grade or remove 10,000 square feet of topsoil from the bank of a navigable waterway.
  • The DOT would be allowed to issue permits for the transportation of fish and minnows in vehicles that exceed certain weight limitations.

We encourage everyone to read the actual bills (linked above). For further analysis, visit the Wisconsin Wetland Association, Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, and Woodsperson Blogspot.

By Karl Fate
Rhinelander, WI

Delivered during Public Comments to the Oneida County Board of Supervisors June 16, 2015, regarding Resolution 52-2015, which asked for the repeal of Paragraph 23 of Motion 520.

Many years ago my Grandfather fell in love with the Northwoods and its amazing lakes. He proceeded to buy property in this wonderland. He bought property on Crescent Lake, Spur Lake, John Lake, Flag Lake, and Prune Lake. At the time it wasn’t worth much and he paid as little as a dollar an acre for it. At the time he built on Crescent Lake, I believe there were as few as two or three other houses on the lake.

Things have changed a bit, especially during the last 25 years. During this time the value of lake property has escalated dramatically to the point where it has become fashionable to construct ever larger and more expensive structures on our lake shores. Our lakes have become so rich that it has blurred the fact that our lakes are critical natural resources and not just real estate. Many of our are lakes are already overdeveloped. The minimum standard isn’t good enough for the lakes of Oneida County. This is why there are already many Ordinances in our state that exceed these minimum standards.

Many people who live and work here simply cannot afford lake property anymore, but they remain equal stakeholders in these precious natural resources. In fact, many of these stakeholders use our lakes in a very intimate manner engaging in the most fundamental of economic activities, they are using the lakes for food, augmenting their diets from our amazing fisheries.

Our fisheries are dependent on the quality of our lakes and this cannot be maintained with an overdeveloped shoreline. Protecting our shorelines is of the most fundamental economic importance. We will not be able to protect the quality of these resources for future generations if we are handcuffed to minimum state standards. Removing the ability of local governments to go above and beyond minimum state standards in order to protect these critical resources is, frankly, just plain un-American.

That brings us to property rights. The reason we have zoning is to protect people from large changes in land use that can negatively impact their land, water, and property. This is especially important on our lake shores because the landowners don’t own the water. In the case of shoreland zoning, it is designed to protect the rights of all of the stakeholders including the guy or gal out there fishing to feed their family.

In Wisconsin today Big Money is working to weaken our State water laws and this threatens our property rights. We saw this with Senator Tiffany’s Iron Mining Law, we saw it with his effort to strip the Town’s police powers, and that is what we are seeing with his latest maneuver.

The ability of County and Town governments to go above and beyond state minimum shoreland zoning standards is critical to protecting property rights and the rights of all of our lake’s stakeholders.

I urge you to fully support this resolution today.


Oneida County Clean Waters Action