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AIS summit draws lake activists from county, state

Tom Hanson, owner of Zorbaz Restaurants, addresses legislators and officials about the problem of aquatic invasive species (AIS) he sees happening in area lakes during an AIS Legislative summit held in Detroit Lakes Jan. 14. (Brian Basham / Detroit Lakes Newspapers)

For the second year, the Aquatic Invasive Species summit brought several legislators and hundreds of people under one roof to hear about the progress of what's been done and what plans to be done on the invasives taking over Minnesota lakes.

"We're not going away. We're still committed," summit organizer Terry Kalil said.

And legislators seemed to be on board with finding funds and pushing for other ways to protect Minnesota's tourism cash cow -- the 10,000 lakes.

"As far as I know, a zebra mussel doesn't belong to a political party. They are not red, they are not blue," Rep. Paul Marquart said.

The state needs to have AIS "set as a priority and find the funding" for research and treatment, he added.

Last year's summit, Kalil said, was to introduce zebra mussels and what they do to a lake. This year, everyone is far beyond that, including several newly infested lakes in Minnesota.

What the DNR is doing

The issue of AIS needs to be a statewide one, not just a local one, to be any success.

"We live and breathe this AIS stuff, but many don't," author Darby Nelson said.

Many don't realize the beating Minnesota lakes are taking though because 99 percent of it happens below the surface.

"We're visual creatures. If we can't see it, does it really exist?" he said is the thought process for many people.

One group that's seeing it, and hearing plenty about it as well, is the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

In the last year or so, the DNR has made some major changes to its AIS division. Last year, there was numerous training and educational meetings held on AIS.

Major Phil Meier of the DNR said that in 2011, 2 percent of the budget went toward AIS work. For 2012, the number has more than doubled to 4.9 percent of the budget. But, he reminds, the DNR's work is based on funding.

"If we don't have funding, we can't legally enforce it," he said.

In just one year, the DNR has increased its man-hours, citations and warnings given out regarding AIS, and that included a month-long state shutdown in July, one of the busiest months for boaters.

"One inadvertent act by an individual can cause serious harm," he said. "AIS dovetails into everything we do."

A few of the things the DNR will be doing in 2012 includes purchasing 20 decontamination units that will be operated at zebra mussel infested waters, high-use destination lakes and at DNR Enforcement check points; hiring 150 new authorized watercraft inspectors and three additional invasive species specialists; conducting watercraft inspection and decontamination demonstrations at five to seven large fishing contests being held on zebra-mussel-infested lakes; producing a documentary on aquatic invasive species to highlight the threat of invasive species, the laws boaters and water users must follow and what boaters and anglers can do to help prevent their spread; and revamping the state's website to make it easier to access AIS information.

Meier said that Minnesota is short 30 DNR officers due to cuts over the years, but the DNR has been approved to hire 24 officers over the next three years, helping to fill some of the vacant stations throughout the state.

With Becker County and the DNR partnering, he said, this area can be a statewide model of how to work together.

"We are all a partner with you and look forward to working with you into the future," he said.

Joe Schneider of Christmas Lake in Hennepin County isn't so sure the DNR is doing its part though. Speaking to the legislators, he told them they've "got to demand the DNR put a new model together" -- one that will include local associations, lake associations and others that will hold the plan up and not just rely on the DNR.

"It's failed, it's absolutely failed," he said of what's been done so far.

Another state change that should be made is higher fines, according to Paula West of Crow Wing County Lakes and Rivers Association. She said the state should give the DNR the ability to give out fines that "actually have some teeth" and make people think twice before transferring boats from one lake to another without being cleaned in between.

She also suggested raising the aquatic invasive species surcharge on boat licenses in the state. The surcharge is now $5 for three years, and she suggested raising it to $20 for three years. With 750,000 registered boaters in Minnesota, it would raise money for the state to put toward research and other efforts to stop AIS.

Home invasion

The invasion of zebra mussels, flowering rush and other invasives is affecting everyone from homeowners to business owners, tourism to recreation.

Erika Johnson said her family has had a cabin on Pelican Lake for generations and in 2010, they learned firsthand about zebra mussels. They had looked and not seen any mussels, but when they took their boat out of the lake, it was covered.

"It seemed like they had appeared overnight," she said. "They hadn't, but it seemed like it to us."

She showed a clip of home movies where her son and others had sliced open their toes and feet on the sharp mussels.

"It's like a razorblade, and I'm not exaggerating," she said.

She added that when family comes from all over the United States to visit, they ask what happened and don't want to utilize the lake much. She said she feels bad, like she let them down somehow.

Others who don't like to utilize the Minnesota lakes -- or won't soon if the zebra mussels continue to take them over -- are the tourists. Minnesota has an $11 million tourism revenue, and resort and hotel owners like Scott Mehlhaff are concerned that infested lakes will take away from that tourism.

"It's easier to adapt to your environment," he said of homeowners dealing with infested waters, but when you're trying to accommodate thousands of tourists, that's completely different.

Mehlhaff and his family own The Lodge on Lake Detroit and Best Western Holland House in Detroit Lakes and Best Western Superior Inn and Suites in Grand Marais.

"The cost of doing business is increasing at warp speed," he said, and infested lakes are not helping.

Barry Chouinard can support that idea on a different scale.

Chouinard is a part of F-M Walleyes in Moorhead, but he's also a part of many fishing derbies throughout the area, including the Pelican Lake Spring Classic and the Big Cormorant Lake Fall Classic.

He said last year boats were being inspected before tournaments, and with the DNR planned to be at 2012 DNR approved fishing tournaments, it should help the spread of AIS.

Last year there was 491 DNR approved fishing derbies in Minnesota, with 27,193 boats participating, he said. That's a lot of potential for spreading invasives from one lake to another.

One more issue Chouinard said is a personal one. Being from Moorhead, 96 percent of the Moorhead drinking water comes from the Red River, which is now infested with zebra mussels. He asked who wants to take his call in the middle of the night when his pipes are so filled with mussels that he no longer has water.

"This isn't a fisherman's problem, not a lake owners problem. It's everybody's problem," he said.

Tom Hanson, who owns the Zorbaz restaurant chain, said he looks for a clean, viable lake when he decides where to build a new restaurant. But, with the lakes declining and the state not taking action, in 10 years, everyone is going to look back and wonder what happened.

"Our oil well, gold mines are these lakes. If we don't be proactive," all of the lakes are going to be nothing more than a photo opportunity because no one will be able to actually get into the lake, he said. "We're going to look back and wonder what happened.

"If this continues, I'm going to be serving Asian carp instead of walleye at my restaurants."

Getting to know the activists

Sen. John Carlson said that lobbyists and activist groups may have a negative connotation, but in reality, they are the ones who inform legislators on what the issues are and what they should know about them.

"These folks are golden to you," he told the public at the summit meeting. "They have access to us."

"There is no way we can know everything," Sen. Gretchen Hoffman agreed. "These are our go-to people."

One of the better-known lobbyists is Jeff Forester, who is the executive director of Minnesota Seasonal and Recreational Property Owners (MSRFO).

"The energy is building behind this issue," he said, adding that last year at the summit, many didn't even know what a zebra mussel was and certainly not the damage they are causing in Minnesota lakes.

There are two types of politics: party politics and issue politics. Issue politics, he said, are "whole different dynamics" because it's about getting an issue passed, regardless of political parties.

"Trying to solve problems, that's what it's all about," he said.

Before it even gets to the legislators though, and before the lobbyists even, it's all about the people and the grassroots efforts to get something done -- in this case, AIS.

The momentum is going in Minnesota, and now it needs to become a regional effort, he said, because it can't just be one state or one area that is effective, but the entire neighborhood.

"Minnesota is the land of 10,000 lakes. There is no reason we can't lead this movement," he said.

Legislators, Legacy funds

Chuck Diessner of the Hubbard County COLA said he sat at a roundtable discuss only a few weeks ago and the topic was if zebra mussels should even qualify for Legacy Amendment funding.

While Diessner's comment at the AIS summit this past weekend opened up discussion on what can qualify as clean water and protecting that water, the discussion has been held at many meetings before.

"How do you define details like 'protect,'" Nelson said has been discussed at the Lessard- Sam Outdoor Heritage Council meetings, which he has been a part of.

"This idea that we're not going to use Legacy money for AIS is wrong," Carlson said. "If this isn't 'protect,' I don't know what is."

Rep. Kent Eken said that "legislators have the final say" on where Legacy funds are spent so to make sure everyone is contacting their legislators and telling them how important AIS funding is in Minnesota.

"A stronger environment makes a stronger economy," he said.

Research is also key in the fight against AIS. Carlson said that the University of Minnesota is beginning an AIS center, and there no reason Minnesota and the local university can't be "leading the world on AIS."

Rep. Bud Nornes agreed and plans to talk with the new U of M president about taking research to the next level in Minnesota since this is where all the activity is happening.

"We can contain it to an extent, but we need biological (treatment). Research is important," Sen. Keith Langseth added.

"There is a sense of urgency, and you're doing your part in bringing this to the forefront," Eken said.