Patrick Durkin: With Foxconn deal, Wisconsin has much to lose - Madison.com

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We can question how many $50,000-per-year jobs Foxconn might deliver, and debate whether 2043 is soon enough to break even on taxpayers’ $3 billion in subsidies, but here’s a more basic question of greater consequence:

Why waive or relax Wisconsin’s wetland and waterway regulations for a company before we even know where to pour its foundation?

Why rush to undo statutory protections for these natural resources across an entire region? Shouldn’t we wait to see if they’d even interfere with Foxconn’s eventual 1,000-acre site in southeastern Wisconsin?

Lawmakers a generation or so ago thought Wisconsin needed those protections. In fact, they found such rules virtuous; a matter of environmental morality. Wisconsinites of the 1960s and ’70s knew the stench of polluted rivers and streams that produced only inedible carp and bullheads.

In the decades since, our farms, power plants, papermakers, and local businesses and manufacturers followed these laws and prospered. Our paper industry, for example, more than doubled its capacity during the 1970s and 1980s while reducing pollution loads by 95 percent. That’s why we now see beautiful parks, restaurants, fishing piers, kayak routes, river-walks and upscale housing along urban sections of the Fox, Wisconsin and Milwaukee rivers.

Has Wisconsin changed so much since? Talk about forsaking your conservation ethic. Maybe Mark Twain got it right in “The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg” when he wrote: “Why you simple creatures. The weakest of all weak things is a virtue which has not been tested in the fire.”

Wisconsin’s virtuous laws were good enough for our homegrown companies for decades, but now we want to dump those regulations for the first giant tech company to whisper promises of a new era and once-in-a-lifetime opportunities? Are we really that weak?

Are we even certain Foxconn is demanding we relax those laws? Given how lawmakers have pecked at our wetland, shoreline and waterway regulations the past six years, it’s plausible they’re just using Foxconn to rescind these laws for good, much as they used Gogebic Taconite to loosen our mining laws, and the vegetable/potato growers to deregulate high-capacity wells. Moves this profound must be debated in full daylight with full disclosure.

Granted, not everyone views Wisconsin’s environmental regulations the way hunters, anglers, trappers and other outdoor recreationists see them. That is, most of us think Wisconsin’s conservation policies were written by visionaries to ensure folks work with industries to protect and enhance our natural resources. By doing so, Wisconsin workers enjoy a quality of life they treasure for themselves and their kids. It even includes bonus meals made from our state’s tasty pike, perch and walleyes; and deer, teal and turkeys.

In contrast, groups such as Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce view environmental impact studies as hindrances, and protections for isolated wetlands as quaint. Lucas Vebber, WMC’s director of environmental and energy policy, frequently calls Wisconsin “an outlier” for having its own EIS and wetlands regulations. He claims two-thirds of states don’t have state-specific EIS programs and even fewer protect isolated wetlands.

Vebber sets a low bar. When he says “outlier,” outdoors-folks say “leader.” Since when does Wisconsin dare to be dim? Wisconsinites so value conservation leaders that we enshrine them in the Conservation Hall of Fame in Stevens Point. The Hall includes Aldo Leopold, John Muir, Warren Knowles, Gaylord Nelson and Sigurd Olson among its nearly 90 such heroes.

Instead of using Foxconn to drag Wisconsin down among the middling two-thirds, the WMC and lawmakers should use it to inspire even greater conservation leadership and innovative thinking. For instance, they could fund research at Wisconsin’s prestigious colleges and universities to ensure Foxconn doesn’t get flooded out in future years, given the way much of southeastern Wisconsin was tiled and drained 80 to 100 years ago for agriculture.

It’s no coincidence that floodwaters closed highways throughout Racine, Kenosha, Walworth and Waukesha counties in July, and caused at least $25 million in damage while flushing nearly 17 million gallons of untreated wastewater into the Fox River. Let’s realize not all such floods are natural disasters. Many occur because Wisconsin routinely disregarded its wetlands a century ago in society’s rush to turn marshes into tillable soil.

Our southeastern counties were so thoroughly ditched and channeled during that era that when heavy rains hit today, all those miles of hard-surfaced in-ground drains push water hard and fast downstream. Do we want to keep building $14.5 million dike systems every time floods hit, such as we’re now proposing for Arcadia in Trempealeau County?

And yet some folks are cynically using Foxconn to disregard the few wetlands that remain in southeastern counties. Yes, there’s talk of 2-for-1 mitigation swaps, where engineers would build 2 acres of wetlands for every acre lost to Foxconn.

But let’s not kid ourselves or invest further in such arrogance. Despite modern engineering, manmade wetlands struggle to imitate nature’s originals. Even our best prefab wetlands won’t absorb heavy rains and reduce flooding if they aren’t strategically located in the upper regions of our watersheds.

If we want Foxconn to succeed, we’ll patiently study where to build its campus, and take a watershed perspective to ensure we have enough wetlands and naturally flowing streams to minimize flood risks. To build for the future, we must get it right the first time.

Besides, let’s not disrespect our elders. Don’t assume those forward-thinking, conservation-minded folks 30 to 50 years ago were a bunch of unemployed dreamers named Fern and Moonbeam. These folks grew up in the Depression, and survived World War II and Korea. They ran businesses, they worked for businessmen, they made their kids work, and they suffered PTSD silently and alone.

They saw what happened with all that tiling and ditching around the state. And so they wrote wetland laws and required environmental impact studies, but not just to protect wetlands. Their laws also protected developments, and their investments in those businesses and building projects.

It’s time we ask more of our lawmakers. They must quit acting like smitten teenagers, and become more careful, deliberate and courageous as they work with Foxconn. If they keep batting their eyes at this suitor, Wisconsin will lose far more than $3 billion in taxpayer-borne subsidies.