Forty years later, one wetland is still roadlessby Dan Olson, Minnesota Public Radio
Alden, Minn. — Back when 83-year-old Bill Bryson was growing up on a farm in southern Minnesota, wetland drainage was a way of life.
The goal then was to dig a ditch or lay underground drainage tile to whisk water away and create more land for farming.
That ethic was still strong on a day in 1970 when a Freeborn County official came to Bryson's farm house announcing the county was giving him a new road.
"There's nothing I need less," Bryson said.
Sitting at his farm house dining room table 40 years later, Bryson recalled how the proposed road was to go right through the middle of the farm and obliterate 18 acres of marshland, despite the fact there were existing roads on either side of the farm less than half a mile away.
Bryson and his wife decided to fight, and got help from a national organization that was relatively unknown to Freeborn County officials in southern Minnesota, Bryson remembers.
"They didn't even know what the Sierra Club was," Bryson said. "They called it the Sahara Club, not Sierra."
It took 10 years for the legal battle to work its way through the courts, including the Minnesota Supreme Court, but eventually the Bryson family won their fight, and the road was never built.
The ruling that saved Bryson's marsh was the first test of the state's 1971 Environmental Rights Act.
It helped set the standard for Minnesota wetland protections, which are among the most stringent in the nation.
Frank Pafko, Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) chief environmental officer and an aquatic biologist, says recently MnDOT and other agencies building or improving roads that affect Minnesota wetlands have to meet what amounts to a "no net loss" standard.
"By compensation you are required to, in effect, replace more than you have taken," Pafko said.
State officials estimate road and bridge construction by cities, counties and the state affect up to 400 acres of Minnesota wetlands each year.
If builders' activities that cause wetland loss can't change their plans to save or recreate a wetland at that same location, they can make a withdrawal on the state's wetland bank account.
John Jaschke, Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resource executive director said the wetland bank balance is currently in the black -- there are more wetlands being created than are being drained.
Jaschke said Minnesota was among the first states to require wetland replacement and the creation of a wetland bank.
"Somewhere, and preferably as nearby as possible and preferably as similar a wetland type as possible, someone will have restored or created a wetland where one has been previously lost," Jaschke said.
Bill Bryson's wetland never had to be restored, and while the background thrum of traffic from nearby Interstate 90 is still detectable on Bryson's land, it is much less intrusive in a wetland rich with the sounds of nature.
One estimate says the land which now makes up the lower 48 states had 221 million acres of wetlands before white settlers arrived.
The estimate states 100 million acres currently remain.
Bryson and others doubt the claim by officials that the state is no longer losing wetlands.
Minnesota Department of Natural Resource officials estimate the state has 10 million acres of wetlands, about half the amount before white settlement.
The DNR says the state's most heavily farmed counties in the south and west have lost 99 percent of their wetlands to drainage.
- Morning Edition, 06/22/2010, 7:40 a.m.