A state Senate committee considers a bill Friday that would ban new public boat ramps on some Minnesota lakes. It aims to keep invasive species out of lakes not yet infested by them.
The proposal, sponsored by state Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, would only affect lakes that currently don't have a public boat ramp.
Among the lakes which would be affected is Pequaywan Lake, a reservoir northeast of Duluth that is surrounded by forest and dotted by lake homes.
So far, Pequaywan and a small sister lake are free of the dozens on non-native plants and animals that have become a threat to native species, and a costly nuisance to people near hundreds of other Minnesota waters.
That's the way lake property owners want to keep it, even if it means keeping the general public away.
The local lakes association is pushing a five-year statewide moratorium on public boat landings on lakes that don't yet have them. Local property owner Scott Mead said the measure is not intended to keep the public away from the lakes, as much as it is to keep destructive creatures like zebra mussels out of the lakes.
"It's been a kind of a hard sell on our part, because it does look like we're selfish," Mead said. "But if you stand back and take a look at the big picture, why can't we have a few lakes in Minnesota that are not infested?"
“Why can't we have a few lakes in Minnesota that are not infested?”Scott Mead, lake property owner
The issue came to a head last summer when the state Department of Natural Resources proposed public access for one of the two lakes. The local lake association, which opposes putting in a public boat access, has Bakk's support.
Bakk, chair of the powerful Senate tax committee and a candidate for governor, proposes blocking any new land purchases by the DNR for new public boat access developments. The measure would only last five years, and only affect Minnesota lakes that currently have no public access.
Bakk says he's not satisfied that the DNR has a working plan to limit what he calls "the alarming spread" of non-native creatures into inland lakes. Managing nuisance plants like Eurasian water milfoil costs some lake residents hundreds of dollars a year.
"The costs of getting invasive species out of an inland lake, even if you can accomplish it, are pretty prohibitive," said Bakk.
Exotics like milfoil and zebra mussels are mainly spread by boats, boat trailers and bait buckets moving from lake to lake.
"I thought maybe the thing to do was take a breather in putting new boat launches on lakes that don't currently don't have one," Bakk said. "There's not much we can do about lakes that have existing boat ramps on them. But maybe we should get our arms around this problem before we start opening up more and more lakes to ... boats that come and go."
Bakk said his proposal would be a 180-degree turnaround in state policy.
Minnesota has 5,500 fishable lakes, but fewer than half have public access, state officials say. The current policy is to open those lakes to the public as waterfront property becomes available.
But DNR officials say the answer to exotics isn't to limit public access, but to educate people on invasive species. They think they're doing a pretty good job of doing so, as Minnesota has only 16 lakes known to be infested with zebra mussels. Meanwhile, Wisconsin has 120, and Michigan has 290 inland lakes harboring the small mollusk.
DNR Policy and Program Manager Ron Potter said this is a bad time to ban new boat ramps. The struggling economy is providing the state some bargains on lakefront property, which allows the state to make progress on providing public access to more lakes.
"It's certainly a buyer's market right now," Potter said. "We've had a lot more parcels come up in the last two years than we've had in the previous five. So, this would not be a good time to take such a step."
Potter said banning boat ramps is no silver bullet in the war on invasive species. He said several lakes that have no public boat ramps are infested, and that could be for any number of reasons -- among them landowners that come and go with their boats or their minnow buckets.
"It could spread by waterfowl," Potter said. "It could spread by wind, by floodwaters, the waters coming up."
Bakk's bill comes up before the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee on Friday at 9 a.m.