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Fargo man sentencing leaves nobody happy in zebra mussel case

Lake Restoration applied a topical treatment of copper sulfate to Rose Lake Thursday in an effort to stem an early outbreak of zebra mussels. (DNR Photo)

When 54-year-old George Wynn of Fargo bought his first boat last year, he bought a boatlift to go with it.

He ended up responding to an ad from a flyer in a gas station in Otter Tail County.

"I had it delivered," he said, explaining that he was a recreational boater camping at a resort on Rose Lake, in between Frazee and Vergas.

Wynn says when it arrived, he worked for over two hours getting wheels on it while the resort owner and other fishermen watched him.

"Nobody said anything to me about anything," said the North Dakota man. "There was plenty of time before we put it in for somebody to say something to me, and I wouldn't have cared because I was basically only storing it there -- it could have sat there for a week."

The two big questions that were not asked that day were: Where did the boatlift come from? And had it been decontaminated?

The answers to those unasked questions were: Lake Lizzy, and no, it hadn't.

There were, in fact, tiny zebra mussels that had hitched a ride from an infested Lake Lizzy -- so tiny they would have been invisible to the eye.

So when the boatlift was placed into Rose Lake, it tainted the lake with the menacing species famous for destroying fish populations and sharpening beaches with its tiny, broken shells.

"I had no idea," said Wynn, who said he had heard of zebra mussels, but didn't know Lake Lizzy was infested and didn't know about the procedures for dealing with it.

"I'm not a fisherman; I'm from out of state and how is one supposed to keep track of which lake is which in Minnesota?"

Ignorance proved to be no defense, as that one act set off a firestorm of controversy on the day Wynn pulled the boatlift back up on September 28, over six weeks after putting it in.

According to Minnesota DNR investigator Chris Vinton, a seasonal camper who had helped Wynn pull the boatlift up noticed the then grown zebra mussels and told him he needed to call the DNR.

Wynn allegedly "blew it off" and drove away, bringing his infested boatlift with him to a campground parking lot on Spirit Lake.

That camper then called the DNR himself to report the incident.

Many questioned Wynn's motives, pegging him as a guy who obviously "just didn't care."

His actions didn't go over well with Rose Lake property owners, the general public or the law, but Wynn maintains even when he was breaking the law, his intentions were good.

"I was moving off the campground, and I didn't call the DNR because I knew the other guy would be calling," he said, "and I wasn't going to put it in (Spirit Lake) -- it was October. Who puts their boatlift back in in October?"

Regardless of Wynn's intentions, the end result was the same.

Rose Lake now sits on the list of infested Minnesota lakes while the DNR waits to see if a roughly $16,000 first-of-its kind treatment applied to that area last fall will be enough to kill off the zebra mussels, which have historically proven impossible to beat in a fully-infested lake.

Meanwhile, this week went down as another controversial one, as Wynn pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of violating Minnesota's AIS law in the Rose Lake case.

He was sentenced to 30 days in jail (stayed for one year) given one year of probation and has to pay $1,000 in fines and restitution.

He wasn't charged with introducing the invasive species, just transporting them when he left Rose Lake.

Members of the Becker County Coalition of Lake Associations are viewing the sentencing as a slap on the wrist.

"It's frustrating because we have spent tens of thousands of dollars trying to educate the public and one person comes along and does this to everyone," said Becker County COLA Vice President Terry Kalil.

"The taxpayers get the bill and this guy pays $1,000 and goes on his merry way."

But Vinton, who investigated and ultimately worked out the plea agreement with Otter Tail County prosecutors, says it was the best they could do because they couldn't prove Wynn was actually the one who put the lift in the water.

"He allegedly bought it sight on scene and had two other people I couldn't account for that allegedly put it in the lake," said Vinton, "and so when it came out with mussels I can't be certain he knew and so it would be the others' responsibly that it was contaminated."

In a statement released by Becker County COLA President Dick Hecock, Hecock says that Rose Lake property owners now get the uncertainty of waiting to see if the DNR's treatment is successful or it their property is irreparably damaged by Wynn's actions.

"The boaters, anglers and swimmers also face an unknown future on Rose Lake," said Hecock, "one that may include zebra mussels clinging to their boats, docks and lifts while shells of dead mussels litter the beaches. Longer term, the fish population will decline. All of this affects tourism and our local economy while forever altering Minnesota's waters."

COLA members say it is for this reason and this case that they will be fighting "very loudly" for stiffer penalties for violators of AIS laws and to give the DNR more authority to crack down on the problem.

According to Hecock, the Minnesota Legislature is currently weighing the DNR's proposal to increase fines and penalties for violating AIS laws with the House Environment and Natural Resources Committee scheduled to hear testimony next week.

"It's frustrating because we don't have a statewide plan for managing this," said Kalil. "What Otter Tail County is doing and what Becker County are doing are two different things, and we're pushing the DNR to get a statewide comprehensive plan so these things line up, but that's a tough battle."

Ultimately, frustration festers for all parties involved in this case, as Rose Lake residents stand to lose the lake they love, COLA members continue to fight a seemingly uphill battle, the DNR sits with its hands tied with weak regulations and an inadequate budget and even for Wynn, who is frustrated that he's been labeled "the bad guy."

"I'm sorry this happened; I am," said Wynn, who says he's gotten a lot of flack due to what he calls rumor and innuendo.

"It's so frustrating for me to have these things said and make it look like it was an intentional (act) when it was not," said Wynn, adding that Minnesota puts all its attention on public accesses and nearly nothing on resorts and campgrounds.

"There was nothing there," Wynn said, "no signs, no instructions -- how is an out-of-stater supposed to keep track of 10,000 lakes? This all could have been avoided with better procedure."