Date of Award


Document Type

Open Access Master's Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Science in Environmental and Energy Policy (MS)

Administrative Home Department

Department of Social Sciences

Advisor 1

Richelle Winkler

Committee Member 1

Adam Wellstead

Committee Member 2

Donald Lafreniere


The national goal of “no net loss” of wetlands in the United States has significantly lowered the rate of wetland loss, but wetlands are still being impacted in some areas. Many states have their own policies in place to protect wetlands aside from the main federal policy, Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, and those policies are implemented in different ways by different levels of government. This research focuses on wetland policy in the Upper Great Lakes states comparing Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Wetland policy and implementation practices vary from state to state, with wetland approval being more devolved to the local county level within the state of Minnesota. This thesis aims to describe the extent to which wetland loss is still occurring in the Upper Great Lakes states, and then to understand how wetland policy design and implementation contribute to policy failure in Minnesota.

First, calculating wetland area change at the county-level using NLCD data, shows that there was greater wetland loss in Minnesota from 2001 to 2011 than in Wisconsin or Michigan. A Moran’s I test showed a hotspot where wetland loss is clustered in the southeast part of Minnesota, especially in the Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) metropolitan area and surrounding counties. Seeing such spatial differences in wetland area change raises the question of whether and how state and local-level policies impact wetland loss. The bulk of this thesis takes a nested comparative analysis of wetland policy levels of implementation in each state followed by related factors that impact whether counties lose wetlands in Minnesota using Mill’s Methods to understand wetland policy failure.

The county-level comparative analysis compared wetland loss to oversight, political pressure, agricultural pressure, and population pressure between counties in the hotspot near the MSP metropolitan area. Four interviews with wetland-permitting decision-makers in four of the counties informed the analysis with factors to consider. The results indicated that some counties outside the seven-county MSP planning region lost more wetlands than those within it, despite the population and development pressure within the metro area. The Watershed Management Organizations required of the seven counties provide oversight on wetland-permitting decisions and reduce wetland loss.

Political pressure exerted on elected officials was shown to cause wetland loss outside the seven-county MSP planning/oversight region. The politicized decision-making process for elected officials increases the likelihood of conflicting goals with wetland policy, which can result in wetland loss. These findings suggest that wetland policy is a failure in Minnesota because of the design of the Wetland Conservation Act. It is an intervention and institutional failure, because the wetland policies are not properly integrated, resulting in policy inconsistencies across counties and negative wetland impacts. There is insufficient monitoring in places, particularly outside the seven-county planning region where Watershed Management Organizations are not required. This suggests that designing policy for multi-agency involvement could minimize local conflict and issues with oversight, and, therefore, may be a more effective way to implement wetland policy.