By Victoria Arthur
Statehouse Correspondent of Indiana’s Catholic Newspapers
The Indiana Catholic Conference and numerous environmental advocates have serious concerns about a surprise maneuver late in the legislative session that could further strip the already-sparse protections for the state’s wetlands.
Last-minute language weakening the definition of wetlands was recently added to an unrelated bill, blindsiding lawmakers and advocates, and offering no opportunity for public testimony. The move came just months after the Indiana Wetlands Task Force issued a report emphasizing that Indiana could not afford to lose any more of this critical natural resource.
Rep. Doug Miller (R-Elkhart), a legislator with strong ties to the building industry, introduced the wetlands-related amendment to Senate Bill 414, a measure dealing with sewage-disposal systems. That bill had passed the Senate almost unanimously and was scheduled for a vote in the House Environmental Affairs committee when Miller presented the unrelated amendment, which, despite strong opposition from several committee members, passed 6-4.
“I was very disappointed,” said Indra Frank, a member of the Hoosier Environmental Council, in reaction to the unexpected move. “The bottom line is that Indiana needs its wetlands more than ever for maintaining healthy waterways, providing habitat for many species and reducing flooding. But this bill, as it stands now, would further reduce the protection of wetlands – and we’d see more of them disappear.”
A motion to dissent was filed in the Senate April 13 after the bill returned to that chamber carrying this and other amendments. At press time, the legislation was awaiting a conference committee hearing to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the bill.
During the March 22 House committee hearing, Miller argued that his amendment was necessary to bring the state back in line with the original intent of environmental legislation that passed the General Assembly in 2021, but that has not been completely put into practice. That year, Senate Enrolled Act 389, which was opposed by the ICC and more than 50 environmental and conservation groups, eliminated safeguards for wetlands across the state by changing their definition and classification.
Senate Enrolled Act 389 had defined three categories of wetlands, with class III considered the most ecologically important and therefore deserving of the greatest protection from development. The amendment recently introduced to Senate Bill 414 makes it much more difficult for a wetland to be classified as a class III.
Developers have been lobbying for additional reductions to the protection of wetlands, saying that the Indiana Department of Environmental Management has been upgrading Class I wetlands to classes II and III.
“Testimony on Senate Bill 389 in 2021 revealed stories of farmers who were unable to address flooding issues on their properties and conflicts with IDEM agents,” said Alexander Mingus, associate director of the ICC, the public-policy voice of the Catholic Church in Indiana. “The ICC isn’t questioning whether any of these underlying disputes between IDEM, farmers and developers are significant. Rather, we want to ensure that the legislature doesn’t pursue a solution to these issues that removes necessary protection for wetlands.”
For the ICC, the long history of Catholic social teaching on proper stewardship of the environment forms the basis for engagement on these issues. In line with its opposition to Senate Enrolled Act 389, the ICC has voiced serious concerns with the amendment to Senate Bill 414.
“The Indiana Wetlands Task Force offered great suggestions, and the legislature hasn’t taken up trying to explore any of them,” Mingus said. “Instead, now we have this amendment. Everyone who watches this issue and was involved back in 2021 was very surprised to see it.
“Ultimately, we don’t want the protection of our state’s few remaining wetlands to be the casualty of arguments over whether IDEM is using its authority properly.”
Instead, Mingus encourages the examination of higher principles, such as those outlined by Pope Francis in his groundbreaking 2015 encyclical on the environment, “Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home,” which was directed toward all people of good will.
“When we ask ourselves why we should care about ecological issues, or how wetlands affect us as humans, it’s good to reinvestigate some of the Church’s teaching,” Mingus said. “Everything in our environment has an impact on human flourishing and the flourishing of all creation.”
To follow priority legislation of the ICC, visit www.indianacc.org. This website includes access to ICAN, the Indiana Catholic Action Network, which offers the Church’s position on key issues. Those who sign up for ICAN receive alerts on legislation moving forward and ways to contact their elected representatives.