INTERNATIONAL FALLS, Minn. (AP) - State and federal laws are designed to protect wetlands, a natural resource important for clean water and wildlife habitat. But for people in Koochiching County in far northern Minnesota, those laws can be frustrating, because much of the county is designated as wetland.
In fact, officials in International Falls say the complex laws that protect wetlands are stifling economic development.
Nearly 80 percent of Koochiching County is wetlands. That's more than 1.5 million acres.
Wetland isn't always what you'd expect. For instance, there's a scruffy piece of property in International Falls next to the health clinic that is designated as wetland.
There's no standing water here, no frogs or ducks or cattails. But this is officially a wetland. It's also the site where the community wants to build a much-needed new hospital.
''The development of this hospital does not hurt the environment, it does not hurt nature,'' said International Falls City Councilman Tim ''Chopper'' McBride. ''That's not our intent. All we want is to have a little development, the ability to develop. That's all we want. We need development up here. We're not a dying community, but we're bleeding a little bit.''
Here's where things get a little complicated. The city can build a hospital here. But wetlands make the project much more expensive.
State and federal laws say if wetlands are disturbed, they may have to be replaced somewhere else. That so-called mitigation could add $100,000 to the cost of a new hospital. That estimate is based on the state's assessment of the site.
But the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers claims jurisdiction over the property, too. The Corps enforces federal clean water laws, which can be more restrictive. Hospital officials worry if the Corps is involved, the project will cost even more.
International Falls city administrator Rod Otterness says Minnesota has done a good job protecting wetlands. According to Otterness, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has gotten more aggressive in northern Minnesota.
He points to a disagreement with the Corps over a runway expansion at the local airport. Wetland requirements from the Corps delayed the project Otternes says and added costs. He adds, it's a practice that has scared many local businesses.
''When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gets involved, everything slows down, everything becomes more expensive, everything becomes more frustrating to the people we're closest to,'' said Otterness. ''Our business owners are finding out that if they want to expand out their back door of a business that may have been there for 40 or 50 or 60 or more years, that somebody is now calling their back yard a wetlands.''
Five years ago, Thor Thompson decided to build a boat and marine sales business on a seven-acre site along Highway 53, International Falls' busiest business corridor.
''It's been frustrating, to say the least,'' said Thompson. ''I mean, this is bureaucrats at their best.''
Thompson says he followed all the rules when the state identified wetlands on his property. With state approval, Thompson built a couple of large ponds to offset the wetlands loss.
A few years later - through what he describes as an administrative mistake - Thompson was ordered to do more wetland restoration work on his property. He spent a year fighting the state, and last summer he won the case on appeal.
Now, Thompson says the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers claims jurisdiction on his property.