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Protecting Wetlands: Environmental Federalism and Grassroots Conservation in the Prairie Pothole Region


Wetlands provide a multitude of benefits including flood protection, clean water, carbon sequestration, and critical species habitat. Given that wetlands are valuable natural resources, it is important to better understand the extent to which federal regulation impacts optimal wetlands conservation. Where federal regulation under the 2015 Clean Water Rule abrogated the ability of the states to make certain regulatory decisions over their waters, the recently promulgated Navigable Waters Protection Rule—that narrows the definition of “waters of the United States” (WOTUS)—may create new opportunities for alternative wetlands conservation strategies. This Article examines five states in the Prairie Pothole Region to evaluate the integral roles the federal government, state governments, and private organizations have in wetlands conservation. Environmental federalism considers the optimal balance of federal and state regulation in achieving complementary environmental protection. Insofar as scaling back federal regulation over isolated wetlands reduces conflict between federal regulators and private landowners, private organizations can more effectively align economic incentives with voluntary conservation objectives. This Article concludes with an examination of Ducks Unlimited, the world’s largest waterfowl and wetlands conservation organization, as a case study for private conservation and public-private action in the region.

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