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Crow Wing County: WAPOA president suggests limited boat landing hours: County board approves 2016 AIS Prevention Plan

Is it possible to control aquatic invasive species more effectively in Crow Wing County by restricting the hours at public boat landings?

Tom Watson, president of the Whitefish Area Property Owners Association (WAPOA), believes it is, and is urging the county to consider limiting public availability of less popular landings. Doing so, Watson said, would allow for more effective coverage of landings by aquatic invasive species (AIS) inspectors.

Watson suggested accesses with the most traffic could remain open seven days a week, while less frequently used accesses could be restricted to weekend-only hours.

Watson's suggestion came before the Crow Wing County Board on Tuesday, Dec. 29, as part of comments accepted on the county's 2016 AIS Prevention Plan, a plan required by the state for distribution of funds to support the efforts. The plan, which the board approved, outlines how the county intends to spend the approximately $450,000 appropriated by the state toward AIS prevention, including on landing inspections, decontamination, public education, treatment and special projects.

Suggestions from area lake associations incorporated into the 2016 plan included an increase in dollars expended on inspections - equating to 1,700 additional hours - and a reduction in administrative costs by eliminating the planned hiring of an AIS coordinator. The program will instead be coordinated by the county's water protection specialist, said Chris Pence, Crow Wing County Land Services supervisor.

Three new lakes were added to the inspection program for 2016 - Crow Wing, O'Brien and Perch lakes - and inspection hours were increased on four landings in Fifty Lakes, five landings on the Whitefish Chain and six other county lakes. Six additional landings are considered very high risk for a total of 32 and two landings were added to the high risk category.

Watson thanked Pence and Land Services Director Mark Liedl for their work in stepping up AIS prevention efforts in the county, although he noted the state funds are not adequate to cover the costs of inspections even with the increase in the county's plan. The state paid for 1,600 hours of inspector coverage on the Whitefish Chain in 2015 and WAPOA paid for 4,400 more hours from its membership dues. According to WAPOA calculations, however, this does not meet even half the need for adequate coverage.

Watson said if the two landings on Cross Lake and one on Big Trout Lake were staffed 12 hours a day from May 15 through Sept. 15 - along with staffing five other public accesses on the chain for weekends only - 14,000 hours of paid inspection time would be required.

"We won't be able to staff those lakes in the way we think we might want to," Watson said.

Commissioner Paul Thiede questioned whether the county or the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has the authority to restrict access at landings, noting it may require federal involvement.

"The DNR will tell you it's a federal authority, that it's the law," Thiede said. "It's nice for you to come up and suggest that, and to say the county and the DNR have that authority, but in fact, we don't."

Reached by phone, Nancy Stewart, the boating access program coordinator for the DNR, said the authority question is a very complicated one, and involves laws on federal, state and local levels, along with case law.

"Whoever owns the public water access probably does have a little bit of say on hours and restrictions," Stewart said. "The DNR, we have very few accesses that have any restrictions, laws and rules in place for hours or any of that. The reason for that, where we own lakeshore, the public has something called riparian rights. They have the same rights as anyone who owns property on a lake."

Stewart said if there were a clear, definitive plan in place that did not confuse the public or completely restrict access to public waters, limiting hours at some public accesses with resource protection in mind would not be out of the question. She said any sort of plan like that should allow for input from the boating public as well, not only government officials or lake associations. And who would approve such a plan remained unclear. Stewart said it would have to come from someone higher than her, and would likely be different depending on the ownership of each landing.

At the Dec. 29 meeting, Chairman Paul Koering reiterated his stance on AIS as a situation where "the cows are out of the barn."

"I think if we're going to spend money, I think we should spend it on a way to treat the lake," Koering said. "It's almost a 'feel good' thing. We feel good about trying to check boats ... but the lakes are already infected."

Pence said according to the DNR, lakes infected by AIS in Minnesota account for 2 percent of the overall number. He said the University of Minnesota Aquatic Invasive Species Research Center is continuously conducting research on AIS treatment and headway has been made in the case of small infestations, such as the zebra mussels discovered in Ruth Lake in Emily this summer.

"The plan is to protect the 98 percent," Pence said.

Watson's idea to restrict hours of availability at certain landings was one of several the lake association president forwarded at the Dec. 29 meeting. His comments were drawn from a six-page letter signed by representatives from 10 other lake associations. Other ideas included developing a county AIS advisory committee made up of residents and lake association representatives, a location change of the county's AIS decontamination station and a request for the county to lobby the state Legislature for a change in the criteria used to allocate AIS funds.

The last suggestion was another Watson said could correct the lack of adequate financial support. Currently, the amount each county receives is based upon the number of public water accesses and the number of parking spaces available at those accesses. This formula is flawed, Watson said, and does not accurately reflect use of lakes in the county. Watson said a good example of this disconnect is the landing on Big Trout Lake, where officially there are 10-12 parking spots.

"Go there on Memorial Day, go there on the fishing opener, go there any time there's a fishing tournament or on the Fourth of July, and you'll probably find another 50 boats, cars and trailers parked along (County Highway 66)," Watson said. "But for the DNR allocation, that doesn't count. What counts is what's in that parking lot. That's crazy. The economic impact of those folks coming to our area is substantial."

Chelsey Perkins
Chelsey Perkins grew up in Crosslake and is a graduate of Pequot Lakes High School. She earned her Bachelor's degree in professional journalism from the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities. Perkins has interned at the Lake Country Echo and the Rochester and Austin Post-Bulletins and also worked for the student-run Minnesota Daily newspaper as a copy editor and columnist during college. She went on to intern at Utne Reader magazine, where she was later hired as the research editor. Before joining the Brainerd Dispatch, Perkins worked as a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal.
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