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Gov. Scott Walker signs a contentious wetlands bill into law Wednesday despite months of controversy surrounding the impact the bill would have on the state’s environment.[/media-credit]

Following months of controversy, Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill into law Wednesday making it easier for developers to build on wetlands throughout the state.

Under the new law, developers proposing a project on wetlands either would have to create new wetlands equal to the amount they destroy or pay the Department of Natural Resources to protect other wetlands throughout the state.

“What we are going to sign today is a great example of how government can be a true partner to economics development instead of a barrier,” Walker said. “There is a balance out there. I want clean air, clean water and clean land. The two can go hand in hand.”

Walker said the balance could be achieved because the bill still allows development and expansion of wetlands under the new agreement with DNR, while at the same time eliminating government barriers to economic development in the state.

Walker signed the law at a conference hosted by the Wisconsin Realtors Association as part of the larger “Realtor & Government Day,” where the association lays out its legislative initiatives for the year.

WRA Vice President of Legal Affairs Tom Larson said the framework of the new law will give DNR more discretion to use mitigation and consider multiple aspects when debating whether a proposed project is good for the environment.

“If you’re filling a small, low quality wetland, which everyone says is just a small depression in farmland, instead you’re going to create a larger wetland in a higher and better qualities someplace else,” Larson said. “That’s a win-win for the environment and economic development.”

The bill passed in the Senate and the Assembly on a party line vote facing opposition by Democratic legislators. Following the bill’s passage, Rep. Kelda Helen Roys, D-Madison, released a statement criticizing the bill for its environmental implications.

In the statement, Roys said she agreed with the number of environmental groups who opposed the bill and called it another example of Republican lawmakers putting business ahead of the environment.

A poll released last week conducted by Public Policy Polling, a self-described Democratic Polling Company, showed 69 percent of voters opposed weakening Wisconsin’s wetlands laws. Majorities of Democrats, independents and Republicans alike said they would be against any legislation hurting the state’s wetlands.

The governor spent the majority of his speech emphasizing the actions his administration has taken over the last year and thanked WRA for being part of the small businesses that are the “life and blood” of the state.

While Walker’s speech emphasized the economic accomplishments of his first year in office, he said several times throughout the speech that much work still needed to be done.

“The most important thing we’ve done is make the government work better, but we’ve got a long way to go,” Walker said. “Even with the 7.1 percent unemployment rate in the state, which is better than it was in 2010 when I came to office, that’s still too much. We need to do more.”