The Legacy of Mr. Environment

Willard told me that it was one of the toughest things he had to do as a legislator”.

Marcus Marsh

The Willard in the above quote was none other than the environmental champion Willard Munger. He was one of the longest serving legislators in Minnesota history (1955-1999) and built the most impressive environmental records. We’re not talking about any small initiatives, but things like establishment of the Pollution Control Agency or beginning a movement to ban the most used pesticide in the nation that was credited with saving the bald eagle from extinction. The list of his accomplishments over his 42 years in the Legislature is astounding and that’s why he earned the name “Mr. Environment”.

One of Willard’s biggest accomplishments was adoption of the 1991 Wetlands Conservation Act (WCA). The concept of this legislation was strikingly simple. As a policy, the state would not allow any net loss of wetlands and if there was a proposal to fill in a wetland, a new wetland of equal value would need to be established to replace it. This basic bill had been around for a while and the chief author in the House, with the encouragement of Willard, had in the past been Rep. Marcus Marsh. In addition to having one of the best names to carry a wetlands bill, Marsh was a Republican sportsman from a rural district near St. Cloud. This gave the WCA bill a strong bipartisan base that would be essential in getting legislation passed.

It was determined at the beginning of the 1991 legislative session that the WCA would be the major DFL legislative initiative on environment.  Willard was told by DFL leadership that the bill needed to be carried by a Democrat as the chief author. This is often referred to as stealing the bill and it is not a surprise on bills that become caucus initiatives. The task of informing the original author typically falls to the chair of the committee that will hear the bill first and in this case that was Environment Chair Munger. Marsh remembered Willard telling him as they met that he felt terrible having to take the bill away from him. “Willard told me that it was one of the toughest things he had to do as a legislator”.

Instead of passing it off to a junior member, Willard kept the bill himself. His reason for doing so was to make sure that Rep. Marsh would always get equal credit for passing WCA. Willard told him that anytime he presented the bill he wanted Marsh attached at his hip at the presenting table.

Soon after the legislation began to be implemented in 1992 it was under attack from agricultural lobbyists and developers. Unfortunately, that is still the case again in 2012, but it’s interesting to hear the legislation now referred to as Marcus Marsh’s wetlands legislation. Marcus now serves as an insurance lobbyist and still fondly credits Munger for his gracious insistence that they be equal authors of the bill.

The latest attack on WCA this year is an effort to substantially increase the amount of wetlands that can be destroyed under what is known as the de minimis exemptions. The law identifies certain amounts of smaller wetlands that can be filled in without the need to replace them. These can be as large as 10,000 sq. ft. Interests that are bothered by having to preserve wetlands often complain about the complexity of these exemptions. The sad thing is that the complexity was brought about by the industries that wanted to have multiple different levels of exceptions.  Munger and Marsh’s original proposal was actually very simple to understand: if it’s a wetland, leave it alone.

Now in 2012 the same industries that wanted the complex exemptions are using that complexity to claim they need to double the exemptions to somehow simplify them. The environment community has a suggestion to help simplify it for them, let’s go back to the original Munger and Marsh proposal.

The 2012 wetland destruction proposals are tucked away in the Omnibus Environment and Natural Resources Policy Bills. Fortunately Gov. Dayton opposes loss of our critical wetlands. Four of his agencies have sent a letter to the legislative leaders opposing changes to these WCA provisions. The agencies are the Department of Agriculture, Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR), the Department of Natural Resources and, the agency that Willard helped create, the Pollution Control Agency.

It is disappointing when legislators who know little about the strong bipartisan history of WCA try to roll back protections of our wetlands, but it’s good to know that the legacy Willard Munger left us years ago is still working to protect critical habitat for future generations.

About John Tuma

John is a former state legislator and litigation attorney. He served in the Minnesota House of Representatives for eight years from the Northfield area, beginning in 1994. Elected as a Republican, John was known for his independent thinking and ability to work across party lines. He is well-known in Minnesota state government circles.
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