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Commentary: The importance of lake associations

Darby Nelson

Thoreau said it best: "A lake is the landscape's most beautiful and expressive feature. It is earth's eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature."

I would add that though mountains may last for eons of geologic time, lakes exist for only a geological moment. It is our cosmic good fortune to be on earth at such a moment.

Minnesota is blessed with over 12,000 lakes. Unfortunately, many of them are beset by problems caused by our own actions. We love our lakes but we not only allow but participate in their deterioration. Though challenges are great, healthy lakes are much too important to our state's economy, our recreational needs, and psychological value to let them degrade slowly away.

So what can we do? DNR, MPCA, SWCDs and other such agencies can help. The legislature and politicians can help. But none can solve it all. After giving talks to many lake associations and COLAs across the state, I am convinced that individuals acting together are the most powerful tool in our arsenal to protect our lakes over time.

Here is what I have observed. More and more lake shore property owners are banding together to form an association for their lake. That is extremely good news. Many of these associations have been created by a small handful of people who are determined to protect their particular lake.

In order to make a significant impact, these pioneer leaders need our help. I have visited with many lake associations and COLA leaders and am greatly impressed by their accomplishments. I have seen them attract funds, often requiring a partial local match. I have seen them educate lake users about AIS threats, (Aquatic Invasive Species); encourage property owners to protect their shoreline by using native plant buffer strips; place navigation buoys to help boaters navigate waters safely; keep members up to date about conditions on the lake;. The list is long and impressive, and can make a real difference for lakes.

When I visit with lake association and COLA leaders, I always ask, "What percentage of the property owners on your lake are members of your association. The lowest percentage I have heard is 25 percent. What a shameful number. Seventy-five percent of shore owners on that lake simply take a free ride at the expense of the work of others. The highest percent? Eighty. In some instances, several non-property owners had joined as well. As lake users, those folks felt an obligation to help.

Back in March, I had the privilege of giving a talk about lakes at the Headwaters Center for Lifelong Learning in Park Rapids. Those folks asked an extremely important question: What will our lakes look like in 50 years. While many factors will determine the quality of our lakes then, rest assured, the greater the percent of lake lovers, property owners or not, who become active lake association members, the greater the likelihood those lakes will be in fine condition. And our grand kids will thank us.

Lake shore property owners, lake users or community leaders who would like to help protect Hubbard County lakes or to join your lake association, please reply to

Darby Nelson is a conservation activist, former college professor and former Minnesota State Legislator. Nelson's book, "For Love of Lakes," is one of four nonfiction finalists for the Minnesota Book Award.