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Minn. lakes survey shows frustration with DNR

Zebra mussels are small, fingernail-sized animals that attach to solid surfaces in water. Forum News Service file photo

ALEXANDRIA, Minn.—Minnesota lake association leaders say they donate millions of dollars and volunteer hours each year caring for lakes, yet the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources doesn't take them seriously.

In a statewide survey, their comments reflect frustration and alarm over the spread of aquatic invasive species in Minnesota lakes. Those surveyed also indicate they worry about keeping up with the needs of the lakes—they say it's difficult to engage members in conservation activities and they're concerned about the aging of lake property owners.

The findings came in a study conducted this summer by Concordia College in Moorhead on behalf of Minnesota Lakes and Rivers Advocates, which represents 6,000 lakeshore and forestland owners.

"In the report, citizens do criticize the DNR, but this was not the intent of our survey," said Michelle Marko, one of the researchers. "We hope the report has some useful information for the DNR and lets them know that lake associations are important partners in the management of their lakes."

Heidi Wolf, a St. Paul-based invasive species unit supervisor for the DNR, said she couldn't address all the concerns in the report, as some involve other divisions within the DNR.

However, some problems have arisen by a lack of funding, she said. To better fight invasive species, her division has requested the Legislature increase the boater registration fee and the out-of-state fishing licenses by $5 over three years. The Legislature turned down that request, she said.

"I think we are looking for the same thing most people are, a partnership to move forward and work on this issue," she said. "It can't be done alone by any one entity so we're happy to have lake associations and (coalition of lake associations) and local units of government work with us on invasive species."

Most lake associations formed in the 1960s and 1970s to preserve and protect the lakes. The survey found that they contribute about $6.25 million and about 1.2 million volunteer hours each year to activities such as aquatic invasive species inspections, water quality testing and community education.

Jan Beliveau, director of the Douglas County Lakes Association, said she shares many—but not all—of the concerns listed in the survey.

She has worked well with local DNR officials, she said, singling out area fisheries manager Dean Beck for praise. She understands they are hampered by financial constraints as well as the necessity of working with multiple agencies and user groups.

More than the DNR, it's challenging to work with local officials such as county commissioners and the local soil and water board, Beliveau said. She said she would like to see the Douglas County Board of Commissioners pull together the different interest groups to improve communication.

Much of the ire against the DNR is caused by the agency's structure, said Jeff Forrester, executive director of Minnesota Lakes and Rivers.

He cited a Stearns County example, when lake owners as well as local government officials asked the DNR to close an access after it was discovered to be infested with starry stonewort in 2015. Instead, the DNR allowed a fishing tournament there in 2016, he said. Now three neighboring lakes also have starry stonewort.

Forrester said it was difficult to work with the DNR because one division handled the tournament, another handled the access point and a third oversaw invasive species.

Here are some of the comments in the survey:

• "MN DNR is ineffective and is not managing (aquatic endangered species). And I do not see any hope that they will ever manage AIS in the state. Changes at the state level need to be made very soon, if not we will lose MN lakes forever."

• "...I am disgusted with the ability of the government and DNR to not aggressively close launches and prevent the spread from lakes with this AIS. ... Education is not good enough, highway stops and central boat cleaning need to be supported.The state government needs to take AIS seriously."

• One lake association said it spends $15,000 a year to inspect for aquatic invasives, more than what is spent by its city and state. "We are fortunate that our members are willing to fund this, but unsure how much longer we can spend at this level," that survey respondent said.

The full study can be found at www.mnlakesandrivers.org and searching for Concordia Lake Association Study.

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