CHARLESTOWN, Ind. — For thousands of years, a teeming wetlands ecosystem called the Grand Kankakee Marsh saturated nearly a million acres of what is now northern Indiana. Known as the “Everglades of the North,” the marsh made big bucks for the fur industry in the 1890s. Once fur went out of fashion, Hoosier leaders decided the area would be more profitable for farming and logging. They used every engineering feat to obliterate the marsh, river, and wildlife that thrived in it. Those politicians considered God-given nature an intolerable inconvenience to progress.

Fast forward to 2007. The family of former state senator Victoria Spartz planned a multimillion dollar project to develop a big box store on 60 acres in Noblesville. IDEM halted the project after the family bulldozed and filled in wetlands on the property without permits. In 2019, Spartz authored SB 229, and Gov. Holcomb signed it last spring. Not coincidentally, SB 229 removes state oversight of certain wetlands near regulated drains. Again, nature is so very inconvenient.

Now three state senators have authored a bill that continues the Indiana tradition of wetland wreckage. Sens. Chris Garten (R-Scottsburg), Mark Messmer (R-Jasper), and Linda Rogers (R-Granger) are proposing SB 389. SB 389 would flat-out eliminate protection of state wetlands in Indiana (and most of our wetlands are state wetlands).

But wait. Sen. Rogers is president of Nugent Builders, and past president of the Indiana Builders Association, while Sen. Garten is a member of the Building & Development Association of Southern Indiana. 

“I authored Senate Bill 389 after having received numerous phone calls from constituents voicing concerns regarding implementation and enforcement of a few well-intended programs and sections of current code,” Sen. Garten said in a written statement. “After sharing these concerns with colleagues, I discovered that the same issues were arising across the State.”

It’s hard not to surmise that said constituents are stakeholders in the construction or real estate business. If you’re engaged in these businesses, wetlands are likely a pain in the arse, preventing you from building exactly when and where you want on your own land. 

But other than builders and developers, who benefits from a bill like this? The fine people of Clark or Elkhart counties? Just the opposite. Wetlands provide free, God-given services to every Hoosier. Ask an ecologist, hydrologist or even a farmer. Wetlands absorb large quantities of water which reduce flood risk—important since Indiana’s average annual precipitation has increased 5.6 inches since 1895, about the time they started draining the Grand Kankakee Marsh.

Wetlands also purify water by helping to filter nitrogen and phosphorus from agricultural runoff, which Indiana has in spades. Wetlands provide wildlife habitat and shoreline erosion control. And often, they’re just plain beautiful.

To get all of these free benefits, all we have to do is let wetlands be. Which the Indiana General Assembly saw clear to do in 2003 with the Isolated Wetlands Act. This act holds that if you want to build a hydroelectric dam, alter flow paths, or discharge wastewater, pollutants or fill material into wetlands and waterways, you need a permit from IDEM to do it.

IDEM’s mission is to “implement federal and state regulations to protect human health and the environment while allowing the environmentally sound operations of industrial, agricultural, commercial, and governmental activities vital to a prosperous economy.” IDEM’s not known for taking industry to task. But if we have no laws protecting the environment, what’s the point?

Anticipating that IDEM might not be thrilled by this IDEM-neutering bill, Sen. Garten added: “I look forward to having a productive conversation with the Indiana Department of Environmental Management through public testimony and our legislative process.”

If the senators who author and sponsor this bill are interested in the opinions of their constituents who are not in the building industry, they may be interested that in a 2020 poll of 800 registered Hoosier voters (representative of Indiana’s demographics), nearly seven in 10 Republicans agreed that protecting the environment should be given priority, even at the risk of slowing economic growth. Even at the risk of slowing economic growth.

Nature: Will it always be seen as an annoying obstacle to commerce here in Indiana? Or will conservatives soon find it politically beneficial to start conserving it? 

A consultant and grant writer, Laker is principal of Laker Verbal LLC. She is the former director of communications at Indiana Forest Alliance and hosts a movie review show, Flick Fix, on WQRT 99.1 FM.