CARMEL — This Friday, Hoosier youth will gather on the Statehouse lawn to demand “immediate, concrete, and ambitious action from global leaders to address the climate crisis.” One person likely to be there is 11-year-old Leo Berry of Carmel. Leo is the founder of Helping Ninjas, an association of kids ready to “stand up for the planet” with chapters in 16 states. The group’s logo is the earth, with friendly eyes and a martial arts headband.

If this sounds cute, don’t think that Leo doesn’t mean business. In fact, he and his group are paying close attention to the General Assembly and the anti-wetlands bill. “SB389 is to overwrite the bill that is currently defending wetlands,” blogged Leo. “When I read this, I felt mad and worried. I sit here and think: Why is it that this world we live in is so driven by outcomes that do not always work in favor of nature?”

Leo started a petition against SB389 on Change.org. It calmly lays out the science of wetlands and the services they provide. By the time you read this, it will have over 25,000 signatures. 

Former state senator Beverly Gard, author of the 2003 bill that is currently defending wetlands, shares Leo’s concern. “The bill is driven by a lobbying organization, the Indiana Builders Association, that did not provide legislators the background necessary to fully understand the issue,” she wrote last week in the Indianapolis Business Journal.

SB389 has sparked activism from many quarters, and media coverage in other states. If it gets a vote in the House, it will force lawmakers to declare their values. It’s also forcing the perennial debate about the role of the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM). Anti-wetlands bill author Sen. Chris Garten (R-Scottsburg) suggested that IDEM’s enforcement of wetlands permitting (as well as their supposed failure to return his phone calls) is the motive for SB389. 

While the anti-wetlands bill squirms in the spotlight, a stealthier bill also involving the handcuffing of IDEM is very much in play. SB271, the brainchild of Sens. Mark Messmer (R-Jasper) and Rick Niemeyer (R-Cedar Lake), allows property owners claiming an industrial waste control facility property tax exemption to avoid going through IDEM. Property owners can simply tell their county assessors they’re controlling their waste at a given facility. Who’s going to check? The bill also tinkers with how the list of impaired Indiana waterways is published, shortens how long it’s available, and eliminates public hearings about waterways declared “impaired” by the EPA. 

Imagine working at IDEM. The benefit of the doubt suggests that IDEM staff are knowledgeable and concerned about Indiana’s air and water quality. Imagine being quietly told to back off of enforcing regulations for certain parties. Or having a massive workload that means you can never get to everything. Or watching laws get passed that force you to look the other way from regulations you used to enforce. 

For some Republican lawmakers, making “environmental management” an oxymoron is the whole goal (especially as they see tightening regs coming down the pike from the Biden Administration). Since the Mitch Daniels era, state agencies are expected to generate their own revenue. If Big Business lobbies for permit fees to be lower, or certain permit requirements disappear (a la the wetlands bill), no wonder IDEM’s earned income is shriveling up. In the last 12 years, the IDEM staff has been reduced by 150. 

Voltaire said: “Men argue. Nature acts.” 

When nature is crossed, it eventually returns with a vengeance. As we’re seeing with climate change, and with the origins of pandemic, brought on by the erosion of what’s wild, crossing nature’s lines comes with a price. 

It doesn’t have to be this way. Industry could trade hubris for humility. They could admit that the way developers or farmers move earth affects the greater good. They could acknowledge that with power comes responsibility. Those who practice the Christian faith could acknowledge that nature’s designs deserve respect. And that checks and balances are fair and necessary, as we temper short-term need with long-term consequences. 

Or they could ask 11-year-old Leo Berry: “I think it is important to protect the environment because it helps us live as humans. It is our home.”  

Anne Laker is a consultant and grant writer, Laker is principal of Laker Verbal LLC.