By Jeff Forester, Executive Director of Minnesota Lakes and Rivers Advocates
We have all seen in the press and on social media the myth that Lake Associations are working to “privatize” or limit access to the public waters. At the DNR Roundtable this myth emerged as a theme.
So, to set the record straight, not only do Lake Associations have no hidden agenda to privatize or reduce access of the public waters, they are perhaps one of the most effective institutions working to protect and enhance local resource dependent economies.
Every lake association in Minnesota, and there are over 500 of them, works to protect the lake resource for the benefit of all. According to a Concordia College study last summer of Lake Associations, Lake Associations spend about $6.2 million of their own dollars for lake improvements and protection, including almost $400,000 spent on fish stocking. They commit 1.25 million hours of volunteer time taking workshops on lake ecology, MAISRC’s Starry Trek, and AIS Detector program. Some of the best and largest lake ecology datasets are due to lake associations, many of whom have been doing secci disc, waterfowl counts and water chemistry analysis for decades.
Lake Associations fund storm warning systems for the lake, put out navigational buoys to keep visitors safe, support lake-based curriculum in local schools, volunteer at boat ramps to educate boaters about Aquatic Invasive Species BMPs. They buy Conservation Easements to help protect water quality. Some have put in campsite/shore lunch sites with fire rings, privy and picnic tables for visitors. They pick up garbage after ice fishing season (there are knuckleheads in every crowd), and work with local resort owners and chambers of commerce to promote tourism on the lake. They partner with watershed district staff to promote shoreline restoration and septic system compliance. Many Lake Association leaders were deeply engaged in efforts to update the minimum shoreland standards under Gov. Pawlenty. They bring in speakers to their annual meetings to talk about the importance of aquatic plants, shoreline buffers, woody debris and storm water runoff control in an effort to educate those members that don’t fully appreciate that what they do on the land impacts the water.
There is a spirit of altruism behind much of their work, but it is an altruism based in self interest. These people love the lake. They have invested both financially and emotionally in it. Most have been at any given lake place an average of 37 years, and it is where the core memories of their families are based. They are not, by and large, wealthy, with an average household income of $58,000 a year. Many forego vacations to distant places and go to the lake “up north” instead. Eighty six percent do not plan to sell their lake places and want to leave them for the next generation to enjoy.
They are anglers. According to a phone survey conducted in 2016 for Minnesota Lakes and Rivers Advocates by Striezeck Research, about 62% of lake home and cabin owners buy a fishing license each year. In addition, they sell an average of four fishing licenses per property to friends and family that come up to the lake on vacation. With about 220,000 lake homes and cabins in Minnesota that means this group of people is responsible for about half the licenses sold in Minnesota each year.
But their self interest goes beyond preserving a Minnesota heritage of time at “the lake.”.
First and foremost the benefits of lakes are financial. Water related tourism provides over $12.5 billion in revenue. Many of the members of the lake associations are business owners, realtors, teachers, workers and others that live in the community adjacent to the lake in question. The lake economy extends to the faith community – congregant numbers and contributions swell during open water. For many of the small towns across the lakes districts in Minnesota, lake-based recreation is the primary economic driver. The average cabin owner spends about $5,000 annually in the neighboring community.
Lake Association members also pay property taxes. A lot of property taxes. A recent Star Tribune article by John Reinan noted, “In 10 of Minnesota’s 87 counties, they (cabin owners) shoulder more than 40 percent of the residential property tax burden, according to data from the state Department of Revenue. And in several counties, they pay more than 50 percent.” In some lake rich but industry poor counties, cabins make up nearly 60% of the tax capacity. When we drill down to the smaller local taxing districts, cabin owners account for more than 50% of the tax capacity in almost 200 taxing jurisdictions.
If the utility of the lakes in these areas drops, if the fishing crashes, or runoff supported algae blooms or aquatic invasive species take over, or water levels rise or fall too much, the geese laying golden eggs dies. Tax base and business suffers. Schools and other public services collapse. It is equally true that if access to the lakes is shut down the local economies would take a significant hit.
Lake Associations, made up largely of local civic leaders, do not want to “privatize” or close access to the lakes for the simple reason that closing lakes does not serve their self interest.
Public policy is always about working in that space between enlightened self-interest and the public good. Here is the dilemma for the Lake Association. Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS) are an existential threat to local lake-based economies and way of life. AIS are spread by humans. (I can hear the barstool biologists claiming that ducks, turtles and other critters spread it. So far there is no scientific evidence that they have. But even more to the point, if AIS were spread via natural means, we would be measuring the spread in terms of centuries, not summers. In 2012 there were 30 lakes designated as zebra mussel infested. Today there are well over 200. Of the 181 lakes with DNR carry in access only, none of them are designated as zebra mussel infested. Four have Eurasian milfoil. Many of these lakes are near infested lakes with waterfowl moving freely between them.)
Here is the real question, how to provide access in such a way that it protects the recreational values of access, prevents the spread of Aquatic Invasive Species AND is sustainable financially.
At the DNR back porch session one attendee made a call for meeting on AIS between Lake Associations and angling groups. Jeff Forester, at Minnesota Lakes and Rivers Advocates invited a number of prominent angling groups to the Aquatic Invaders Summit III, held on Feb. 28/March 1 at the Earle Brown Heritage Center in the Twin Cities. Mr Forester has also met with angling leaders at Wildlife Forever, Conservation federation and Anglers for Habitat to encourage them to begin a meaningful, transparent and accountable partnership with lake associations to protect and enhance fishery resources in the state.
This at the Aquatic Invaders Summit, hosted by Minnesota Lakes and Rivers Advocates, the Minneapolis Chapter of Muskies Inc. presented on the protocol they have developed with Cass County to provide AIS protection at the Frank Schneider Muskie Tournament. There were sessions on the impacts of various AIS to specific fish communities, how changes to plant communities impact fisheries and strategies to protect them. There are new eDNA tools that could help tremendously with not only early detection of AIS, but tracking the densities and distribution of fish populations within a lake. There were presentations on the many creative programs that have emerged to prevent AIS spread and protect access, including a presentation on the Wright County pilot.
Minnesota Lakes and Rivers Advocates has a simple message for all the anglers in Minnesota – work with a lake association. Meet others in the state who are working to protect lakes and our lake based economy. Be part of the solution. But be prepared to change. Be prepared to find areas where you can work with others to protect a resource that benefits all. Preventing the spread of AIS will require behavior change from everyone. It will require everyone’s good ideas and effort and contribution. And because there are always a few boneheads, we may have to put up with more regulations or inconvenience. Most anglers practice catch and release to some degree. They put back the big female walleyes, release the prime bass, take only the fish they may eat that day. But because of a few that act only in their self interest with no regard for the larger public good of protecting the resource, we must have catch limites, slot limits, seasons.
Because of aquatic invasive species, the same is true of accessing our lakes. We must take action to change the way we use our lakes if we hope to protect the public trust, and provide the opportunities and local lake-based economies we have enjoyed into the future.
So no, Lake Associations have no plot to shut the public off the public waters. They are working to protect a resource that is critically important to them personally, to their communities, to the State, to you. If you want to do more than grouse, throw stones, spread pernicious myth, join Minnesota Lakes and Rivers and contribute to work that will benefit us all.
MN Lakes & Rivers Advocates ~ PO Box 22262 ~ St. Paul, MN 55122
www.mnlakesandrivers.org ~ 952-854-1317 ~ firstname.lastname@example.org