Zayne Regester fishes in a pond located on the Wabashiki Fish and Wildlife property on June 1, 2019
Zayne Regester fishes in a pond located on the Wabashiki Fish and Wildlife property on June 1, 2019
Bald eagles soar over woods and water throughout Vigo County these days.

In the 1970s, the sight of one in the Wabash River Valley would've been a stunning spectacle.

Today, the presence of eagles here and elsewhere exemplifies the many positive effects of the restoration of wetlands. Those living symbols of America, all but gone from Indiana for most of the 20th century, have returned to the state because their wetlands habitat also has returned. An estimated 300 pairs of eagles now nest in 84 of the state's 92 counties, according to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.

The wetlands rejuvenation isn't just about eagles. Other species, from otters to falcons, bobcats and wild turkeys have migrated to Indiana through the 21st century.

"We're seeing wildlife in abundance that we've never seen before, and it's because of wetlands protections," said Brendan Kearns, a longtime Wabash River and outdoors advocate.

Indeed, the emergence of those animals represents an overall strengthening of wildlife and the environment throughout Indiana, and a renewed interest in outdoors activities and recreation. The state's outdoors amenities have been a lifeline for Hoosiers' spirits during the isolation of the pandemic. The number of visitors to Indiana's state parks jumped by 2 million in 2020.

A shining example of Indiana's embrace of its natural resources came through former Gov. Mitch Daniels' Healthy Rivers Initiative, launched in 2010. Daniels' goal was to permanently protect 70,000 acres of Hoosier wetlands, through the new state program, along Sugar Creek and the Wabash and Muscatatuck rivers. Nearly 43,000 of those 70,000 total acres lie within the Wabash River watershed region.

As of January 2020, 37,848 of those wetlands acres had been acquired from willing landowners and protected, DNR figures show. That includes 3,591 acres of the Wabashiki Fish and Wildlife Area near West Terre Haute, Kearns said.

When the former governor announced the program on a sunny June day in 2010, Daniels said he wanted Indiana "to become a national leader in wetlands and wildlife protection."

A bill speeding through the Indiana General Assembly would do the exact opposite.

Senate Bill 389 would remove protections on all state-regulated wetlands. That would leave safeguards on only federally protected wetlands, which account for just 10 to 20 percent of wetlands in the state, according to the Hoosier Environmental Council. Federal protections previously covered nearly 60 percent of Indiana wetlands until deregulations by the Trump administration last year, the Indianapolis Star reported. But Indiana's "isolated" wetlands remain protected by the state through a 2003 law. Such isolated wetlands aren't directly connected to lakes, rivers and streams.

The Indiana Senate passed the Republican bill to repeal those protections by a 29-19 margin on Feb. 1. Nine Republicans opposed the bill, along with 10 Democrats. The bill is now under consideration in the Indiana House.

Senators who authored the new bill contend it's needed to help developers avoid the costs and red tape from the state law, such as the requirement of either replacing a wetlands damaged by development or paying a fee into a DNR wetlands program. Removal of state protections of isolated wetlands would boost housing development, those legislators contend.

The bill's main authors have ties to the land development and housing industry, the Star reported.

Jon Ford, a Republican senator from Terre Haute, didn't sponsor or author the bill, but voted in favor of it. Ford said he received 26 emails concerning the bill before the vote, and all but two supported its passage. He said many local residents also have spoken to him about the adverse effects of the 2003 wetlands law.

"This is a [state wetlands] program that's grown to be too big and too forceful in the way they're handling it," Ford said Tuesday. He added that the Indiana Department of Environmental Management "has forgotten who they work for — the people."

IDEM and all other state agencies have been overseen by Republican governors for the past 16 years.

'Unintended consequences'

IDEM, the DNR and more than 50 conservation, hunting, fishing, parks and environmental organizations have formally opposed the legislation. Gov. Eric Holcomb expressed reservations about the bill in a statement to the Indiana Environmental Reporter.

"We need to be confident that any changes in the law avoid harming drinking water quality, increasing the potential for flooding, or hurting the wildlife habitats used by our anglers and hunters," Holcomb said last week.

During his weekly pandemic update Wednesday, Holcomb touted the growth of Indiana's outdoors recreation industry. He also backed his IDEM and DNR staffs, while emphasizing he's "not trying to slow down our momentum," referring to Indiana's economic recovery. "These are agencies with the expertise on not just the intended consequences [of repealing wetlands protections] but the unintended consequences, as well," Holcomb said.

The consequences are tangible.

Wetlands, including isolated wetlands, filter pollutants that would otherwise reach groundwater and surface water — both of which provide drinking water supplies in Indiana, the Hoosier Environmental Council says. Wetlands, even small ones, also prevent flooding in nearby communities.

"One acre of wetland can absorb 1-to-1.5 million gallons of water. If a wetland is destroyed, the water it would have absorbed will be displaced and impact neighboring wetlands," Indra Frank, the HEC's environmental health and water policy director, said Tuesday.

Permanently protected wetlands could be affected if nearby isolated wetlands are destroyed, she added.

Wabashiki popular spot

Tonya Pfaff, a Democrat who represents Terre Haute in the Indiana House, opposes the repeal of wetlands protections. The benefits of those protections, Pfaff said, can be seen through the growing popularity of Wabashiki — a wetlands set aside more than a decade ago and now mostly under federal protections. Outdoors recreation and tourism is growing here.
 
"In Vigo County during the last 15 years, we have learned about the importance of wetlands," Pfaff said Wednesday. "Thanks to Gov. Mitch Daniels' Healthy Rivers Initiative and the hard work of county officials, the [DNR] and scores of local citizens, the Wabashiki wetlands are restoring thousands of acres that were once wetlands to their natural state."

Just 4% of Indiana's original natural wetlands remain.

Pfaff understands complaints and frustration when state regulation becomes "overzealous." "But the answer is not to take a meat cleaver to the problem," she said. Pfaff favors addressing specific problems through the governor's office, IDEM and the DNR.

Likewise, Kearns — now a Vigo County commissioner — opposes the bill and said he hasn't seen such a "rally cry before about an environmental bill." It would remove local control of wetlands issues, which he thinks county soil and water conservation experts could handle. Kearns said he definitely doesn't want to stifle building development, but believes unique problems concerning wetlands could be resolved without repealing state protections.

"If we keep stripping away our wetlands, what are we going to have in 40 or 50 years?" Kearns said.
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