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Dayton: Mille Lacs walleye woes require special session

Gov. Mark Dayton discusses his plan to call a special session next month to address economic issues in two popular lake areas. Tim Pugmire|MPR News

DFL Gov. Mark Dayton is proposing a special legislative session sometime next month to consider an emergency financial aid package for resorts and other businesses in the Lake Mille Lacs area. But House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, says he thinks it may be too early to talk about bringing back the Legislature.

Dayton is concerned about the economic hit that the popular fishing destination will suffer if state officials close the walleye season early due to a dwindling fish population. He discussed the idea with Daudt and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, Tuesday afternoon, and they agreed to meet next week to begin planning.

No decisions have been made, but Dayton told reporters Wednesday that the state assistance could include zero interest loans, property tax abatements and additional tourism promotion. He said “time is of the essence” to address a potentially “catastrophic” situation.

“We need to get the loan program under way,” Dayton said. “The resorts up there need working capital so they can pay their employees and just keep open, especially if the walleye fishing has to be closed beginning next week.”

Before a special session area legislators, lawmakers who oversee natural resource issues and state commissioners should meet to talk about the problem and ways to respond, Daudt told MPR News Wednesday.

"We're very concerned about the situation. We want to make sure we do what's right by these resorts. We don't want to see them suffering because of this closing of the season early," Daudt said. "But we also want to make sure we're doing the right thing. And we want to look at all options."

Dayton met Wednesday afternoon in St. Paul with Mille Lacs area officials and business owners. He plans to visit the area later in the week.

Dayton said he does not believe the decline in walleye is related to American Indian fishing on the lake, but he raised concerns about the tribal practice of gill netting during spawning season, which is allowed under longstanding treaties.

The governor said he also has concerns about the negative attitudes many Mille Lacs area residents have about the DNR, and its management of the lake.

“I think we all need to pull together now and try some things that have been resisted before and see that we’re all in this together, the tribes as well as the resorters and others there," he said. "Everybody is affected by this drastic situation regarding the walleye population, and rather than pointing fingers, we need to be pulling together and seeing what we can do to turn this situation around.”

Dayton isn’t ruling out action on lake management measures, but he stressed that his priority for the special session is immediate aid to businesses.

Following the meeting at the governor's residence, resort owner Tina Chapman talked about her concerns.

"We're worried that what's going on now isn't working; what the DNR is doing isn't working. We need to make some changes to fix the health of the lake," she said.

Other industry representatives also weighed in.

Joel Carlson, a lobbyist for the Congress of Minnesota Resorts, said he’s pleased that state leaders are ready to help.

“Mille Lacs is one of the most popular walleye fisheries in the state and in the country. So certainly when you restrict fishing on that lake it’s going to have economic consequences, and not just for resorts.”

Dayton and Daudt said a special session would also include state assistance for the Brainerd area, which was hit hard by heavy storms two weeks ago.

MPR News reporter Tom Scheck contributed to this report.

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