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Many of Minnesota’s drought-ridden wetlands are not currently wet but this doesn’t mean they are unprotected.

It is a mistake for anyone to think that the current accessibility of wetlands due to dry conditions makes it OK to drain, fill or excavate these critically vital areas without going through the extensive permit process set out in the Minnesota Wetland Conservation Act.

Also, motorized off-highway vehicle riders may find it easier to access wetlands during dry years but the message from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is still “stay out.” Drought conditions make wetlands extremely vulnerable to damage. This means it is even more important for four-wheeler operators and drivers of all other off highway motorized recreational vehicles to stay out of areas in and around wetlands to avoid carelessly upsetting the natural and ecological balance.

Just as in years of normal rainfall causing damage to wetlands, even those dried out by the lack of rain, will trigger the enforcement action spelled out in the DNR regulations manual on wetland protection.

Wetland protection might seem at first glance as just another way for government to inhibit property owners’ rights and spoil everyone’s fun. A deeper look, however, will reveal the importance of wetlands as highly productive biologically diverse systems and valuable resources worthy of protection for the public good.

Understanding the critical value of wetlands to the environment, wildlife and the public is a relatively new concept in the United States. Prior to the 1970s, wetlands were typically regarded as wastelands. It was common practice to drain them, fill them or treat them as dumping grounds. By the time the importance of wetlands became known, more than half of the 221 million acres of wetlands that existed in the lower 48 states in the late 1700s had been destroyed.

Wetland loss in Minnesota followed the same trend. About 18.6 million of Minnesota’s total area of 53.6 million acres were wetlands prior to statehood in 1858. Today, only about 10.6 million acres of Minnesota’s pre-statehood wetlands remain. In some counties, almost all the pre-statehood wetlands have been drained, according to Minnesota DNR statistics.

The growing recognition that wetlands have numerous and widespread benefits prompted the U.S. Congress in 1972 to regulate activities allowed in wetlands by amending the Federal Water Pollution Control Act. These protective measures were further expanded with the executive orders on Floodplain Management and Protections of Wetlands signed by President Carter in 1977. These executive orders ensured protection and proper management of floodplains and wetlands by federal agencies.

Although the federal government bears the major responsibility for regulating wetlands, many states, including Minnesota, have their own wetland regulations. The state’s Wetland Conservation Act, passed in 1991, prohibits draining, filling and excavating in wetlands unless it can be demonstrated that the work meets the conditions for exemption. Most Minnesota cities have adopted the wetlands act and have established procedures for wetland alteration permits.

This permit process is intentionally extensive and thorough to allow only the most necessary alterations to proceed. The overall goal of wetland protection at the federal, state and local level is “no net loss of wetlands.”

Penalties for violation of wetland protection laws can be substantial, the most common being the cost of repairing the damage, which is usually born by the property owners. However, civil penalties assigned by the court can be as high as $25,000 per day for failure to abide by cease-and-desist orders. Administrative penalties may also be assessed by the United States Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency.

With the knowledge we have gained over the past 50 years about the important role that wetlands play in water quality, soil and stormwater control, and wildlife habitat, it shouldn’t take much convincing to gain the public’s cooperation to protect this most valuable natural resource.

— An editorial from the APG of East Central Minnesota Editorial Board. Reactions are welcome. Send to: editorial.board@apgecm.com.

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