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Photo of Bill Bryson.

A Maverick for Wetlands

Nearly 40 years ago, a southern Minnesota farmer took a historic stand for a marsh. The case went all the way to the state Supreme Court—and sparked a Minnesota movement to value and preserve wetlands.

By Mark Herwig

In March 1970 Bill and Arlene Bryson's marsh was just coming back to life after a long, cold winter. Unlike many other farmers at that time, Bryson was not draining wetlands to raise more crops. So when Freeborn County proposed to run a road through his marsh, Bryson put his big old boot down and said, "No way."

Bryson loved his 18-acre marsh near Alden in southern Minnesota. In fact, he purchased the land in 1966, in part, because of the wetland, which he wanted to protect as a wildlife haven. In 1987 Bryson enrolled 67.5 acres of land around the marsh in the federal Conservation Reserve Program, in order to improve the wetland's water quality and provide wildlife habitat. He also fenced off a nearby 14-acre oak grove from grazing; now monarch butterflies from his marsh and elsewhere roost there in remarkable numbers.

image of Bill Bryson

Bryson's Wetland

See more images of the marsh that started a movement to preserve Minnesota's wetlands.

Back in the 1960s, Bryson wasn't the only farmer having a change of heart about the land they made a living from. Indeed, he was part of the growing national environmental movement that supported passage of such landmark legislation as the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the Clean Water Act of 1972. In Minnesota, the movement was sparked by Bryson's lawsuit to protect his marsh—a legal case that went all the way to the state Supreme Court.

The Fight

After Bryson refused to agree to the road plan, the county summoned him to district court in 1971. The county wanted to compel Bryson to obey an order of eminent domain to condemn portions of his marsh for its new road. Bryson responded with a countersuit under the new Minnesota Environmental Rights Act.

The district court judge ruled in favor of the county. Bryson appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court, which reversed the district court. The case then went back to district court, wherein the county transportation department proposed moving the road 50 feet. The proposal, however, would still cut the marsh in two. Nevertheless, the district court ruled for the county. Bryson again appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court and won in 1976, compelling Freeborn County to leave Bryson's marsh alone.

An often-quoted statement from the Minnesota Supreme Court decision said of Bryson's quest:

To some of our citizens a swamp or marshland is physically unattractive, an inconvenience to cross by foot and an obstacle to road construction or improvement. To one who is willing to risk wet feet to walk through it, a marsh frequently contains a springy soft moss, vegetation of many varieties, and wildlife not normally seen on higher ground. It is quiet and peaceful—the most ancient of cathedrals—antedating the oldest of manmade structures. More than that, it acts as nature's sponge, holding heavy moisture to prevent flooding during heavy rainfalls and slowly releasing the moisture and maintaining the water tables during dry cycles. In short, marshes and swamps are something to preserve and protect.

This past September, I went to Bryson's farm to see what all the fuss was about those many years ago. I grew up in the area, and as a duck hunter and wetland conservationist, I'd long wanted to meet this conservation hero and see his famous marsh.

Bryson greeted me with a hearty handshake as I got out of my car. Then he hopped on his four-wheeler and led me on a tour. At the marsh, egrets were wading, frogs croaking, and cicadas calling from nearby oaks. A rare tricolored heron and white-fronted geese have stopped by the marsh, Bryson told me. Local school and birding groups have visited to look for water birds. When a judge in the lawsuit came to see the slough, Bryson suspected divine intervention because the judge found it covered with migrating waterfowl.

"That was great timing on the part of the ducks," Bryson chuckled, smoothing back his wind-tossed gray hair.

"Watermark" Ruling

Chuck Dayton, then attorney with the Project Environment Foundation, which later became today's Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, called Bryson's court victory a monumental legal precedent and an inspiration for the budding environmental rights movement 40 years ago.

"We decided to push for a Minnesota Environmental Rights Act, which passed. This is the law that was used to stop the road through Bryson's marsh," Dayton said. "It established the principle in Minnesota that if a government is taking action which will have an adverse environmental effect of a serious nature and there is an alternative that's less damaging, the government has to use the alternative even if it's more costly. The Bryson case put flesh on the bones of MERA."

Bryson's wetland court victory has left several important conservation legacies, said Ray Norrgard, executive director of the Minnesota Waterfowl Association from 1980 to 1985 and now wetland wildlife program leader for the Department of Natural Resources.

"Bill Bryson really drew attention to the idea that there are private landowners who wanted to protect wetlands and, quite often, were not allowed to do so, even on their own land," Norrgard said. In the 1970s, while lawmakers generally supported the concept that landowners had a right to do as they wanted with their land, they too often assumed private landowners were always in the business of reaping the most economic gain from their holdings, Norrgard said. As a consequence, they passed laws that worked against landowners' rights to protect their wetlands.

Bryson's five-year legal battle drew a lot of media coverage and brought attention to wetlands. That public awareness helped create a statewide Public Waters Inventory later in the 1970s. DNR Waters conducted the original inventory and maintains the records, which clarify where state water law applies and where it doesn't, so the state and others can protect wetlands under their jurisdiction.

The Bryson decision and the inventory helped lead to additional wetland protections with passage of the state Wetlands Conservation Act of 1987.

"The WCA extended protection to nearly all wetlands. The Bryson case energized the political force necessary to pass WCA by calling attention to wetland loss," Norrgard said. "It said that despite PWI, we still had major gaps in wetland protection."

The Wildlife Lake Designation law also benefited from the Bryson case, with a 1974 expansion in the law's jurisdiction to include lakes in the northern two-thirds of Minnesota. And Bryson helped inspire the 1977 law that created the state waterfowl stamp, which generates dollars for waterfowl habitat by requiring waterfowl hunters to purchase the stamp.

"Political momentum to do this does not happen without some call to action, and the Bryson case did that," Norrgard said. "It brought public focus to the plight of wetlands. It put the issue front and center."

Back to the Marsh

Bryson remains proud of saving his "little duck pond" in the sea of corn and beans that is rural Freeborn County. As we stood together in the shade of some willows, Bryson mentioned that he still sees waterfowl in his marsh every year, particularly wood ducks and teal.

While the legal victory was sweet, it is the habitat and wildlife legacy that really means something to this big-hearted farmer and his wife who, 40 years ago, decided they weren't going to be pushed around.

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