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Wetlands debate: after years of fighting officials hope for reconciliation

September 1, 1989


David Fettig Managing Editor
Wetlands debate: after years of fighting officials hope for reconciliation

About 100 years ago there were approximately 5 million acres of wetlands in North Dakota.

Today there are about 2 million acres. And, until recent programs were put into place, the rate of wetland loss was 20,000 acres each year. Much of that acreage was converted to productive farmland, although a portion also went toward urban development.

Nationally, a 1987 report revealed that half a million acres of wetlands are destroyed annually; and, since colonial times, more than half of this country's wetlands have disappeared.

Additionally, soil erosion, water quality degradation, siltation, chemical contamination and salinization have hampered the quality of some remaining wetlands.

The issue of wetlands preservation gained national attention this year when President Bush publicly endorsed a national "No Net Loss" policy, whereby new wetlands replace existing ones that are destroyed for urban or agricultural benefit.

But two years before the president took up the issue, North Dakota became the first and only state to adopt its own no net loss policy. Additionally, Congress got involved recently by passing the so-called Swampbuster legislation, which strictly regulates wetland use.

The issue of wetland management has long simmered on North Dakota prairies, and it is only in recent years that groups on both sides of the issue have been able to sit down together and work toward a solution, officials say. The controversy has taken on greater importance in recent years as state officials juggle the dual concern of disappearing wetlands and a struggling ag economy—the state's economic lifeblood.

Meetings within the past few years may have been the first time in the state's history that both sides have sat at the same table, according to Lloyd Jones, commissioner of the state's Game and Fish Department—and he's been involved with that issue for 17 years.

Some officials hope the new sense of cooperation, however fragile, will become a story of environmental and economic cooperation—rather than the typical story of confrontation.

"We're well on our way," Jones said. "The system is in place now to work."

In the past, many farmers and developers may have regarded wetlands as worthless sloughs or rain-catchers that got in the way of profitable farmland or valuable developments. Today, while some may still hold that opinion, they are undoubtedly more aware of wetlands' function in the environment.

"Wetlands are the most important ecosystem on the prairie," Jones said. "They play a very, very integral role."

Wetlands recharge groundwater supplies, improve water quality by trapping pollutants and slowing erosion, send moisture back into the air for needed rain and provide flood control. Also, they are the prairies' most complicated ecosystem, providing life for plants, insects, birds and wildlife that otherwise would not exist on the harsh land. As such, they also provide recreational and educational uses for humans.

Perhaps the wetlands' most visible role is to provide waterfowl habitat; and, as the quantity and quality of wetlands has declined, so has the waterfowl population. In the early 1970s the fall migratory flight included about 100 million ducks. Last year there were about 66 million.

"In the past there has been a lot of controversy and conflicts," Jones said of the relationship between environmental and agricultural groups on the issue of wetland management. "The two forces were becoming deadlocked. It was an overall bad situation."

Mike Dyer, executive director of the North Dakota Water Users Association, agrees with that assessment. But he also shares Jones' optimism for the future, adding that both groups have come a long way to accommodating mutual objectives.

"We think the two sides can be compatible," Dyer said. "It's not an either/or situation."

The Water Users Association, with 1,200 mostly business-related members— including farmers—adheres to the no net loss principle, Dyer said. While the group is willing to work with environmentalists, he said some groups continue "to be a thorn in our side."

Environmental groups have to realize, he said, that you can't come to the table to compromise, and then simultaneously file lawsuits. There has to be give and take, he said.

Dyer said many farmers have shifted their position in recent years, adhering more to the principles of strict wetland management.

But not all farmers.

For example, Wes Tossett of Lansford, N.D., and about 200 other farmers banded together this year to form the North Dakota Landowners Association, a group that believes Congress did not intend Swampbuster to have such strict provisions on all types of wetlands and is working to change the law.

Swampbuster prohibits use of all wetlands (labeled as Types 1 through 4), even those that are wet for brief periods in the spring—a crucial time for farmers who are planting their summer crops.

"I realize the value of wetlands. The farmers were the first environmentalists and the first conservationists," Tossett said. "But I don't want to be called an environmentalist anymore."

Tossett said there is a lot of resentment among farmers for the way the wetlands issues have been decided. He said he hopes to get about 2,000 landowners involved in the Landowners Association.

"The people in Bismarck, Minneapolis, Denver and Washington figure we're a bunch of mute serfs out here," he said. "We've paid for this land with our blood, sweat, oil and tears. And now we're being stabbed in the back."

Pretty soon, Tossett said, farmers will be told they can't spray chemicals on or near the wetlands—a nearly impossible tactic since many of the wetlands are hard to notice through much of the year.

"You can think of all kinds of things sitting in your venetian-blind, air- conditioned office, but you get out here and it's reality. It's a constant battle with Mother Nature," said Tossett, who's been farming for 35 years and currently works about 3,000 acres.

Sometimes wetlands can be the most productive areas on a farm, Tossett said, and in years when crops are already suffering from lack of moisture, wetlands can provide most of a farmer's earned income.

While the protests of Tossett and like-minded landowners will keep the wetlands issue alive for years to come, such protests won't likely dampen Jones' sense of optimism, or urgency. "It's a very critical situation," Jones said of the declining wetland acreage, especially following two straight years of low moisture.

"We may have lost too many [wetlands] already," Jones said. "Water is the basis of life, including human life—not just quantity, but quality of water."