Lake residents want a tougher law to keep trash (and worse) off the ice

An aerial photo shows the ice houses
The Keep It Clean initiative started in 2012 around Lake of the Woods along the Canadian Border as trash proliferated on the popular winter fishing destination.
Kerem Yucel | AFP via Getty Images 2022

Many popular Minnesota lakes turn into towns on ice over the winter.

Upper Red Lake is visited by tens of thousands of anglers and many spend a weekend or a few days on the ice. And some leave more than footprints and frozen-over ice-fishing holes when they depart.

This winter the Upper Red Lake Area Association ran a pilot project to address the issue of people dumping human waste on the ice. They installed dumpsters at lake access points and mounted a public awareness campaign to encourage anglers to properly dispose of human waste.

“They recorded well over 10 tons of human waste bags, toilet bags that people had put in those dumpsters,” said Robyn Dwight, president of the Upper Red Lake Area Association.

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

The campaign was so successful Dwight said the group is looking for funding to continue it next year.

Dwight is among a growing number of Minnesotans organizing to call for tougher enforcement and more resources to keep lakes clean over the winter.

a holiday wreath frozen in ice
A holiday wreath among the trash left behind on Lake Mille Lacs.
Courtesty Ann Brucciani Lyon

Keep it Clean initiative

The Keep It Clean initiative started in 2012 around Lake of the Woods along the Canadian Border as trash proliferated on the popular winter fishing destination.

In the past couple of years, Upper Red Lake and Lake Mille Lacs joined the effort because of what they saw as a worsening problem. Dwight said they’ve heard from other lake groups in Minnesota and in surrounding states who also want to join the initiative.

Trash collected on a frozen lake
Minnesota DNR conservation officer Brent Grewe collected this trash in March 2021 from the ice on Medicine Lake in Hennepin County.
Courtesy of Minnesota DNR

Trash left on the ice has long been a issue for many Minnesota lakes, but Dwight said the evolution of wheel houses has exacerbated the pollution and the concerns. Wheel houses are essentially fully appointed recreational vehicles with holes in the floor for fishing through the ice. They allow anglers to spend days at a time on the ice.

“More and more people have an opportunity to leave trash on the ice, not only trash but human waste because these beautiful RVs are now equipped with black and gray water holding tanks,” she said.

“We don't have the resources in the state of Minnesota to deal with these new winterized wheel houses. We don't have winterized (sewage) dump stations and we don't have the resources to keep up with the whole phenomenon of winter camping on the ice.”

So the groups teamed up to push for legislation that would toughen state law regarding leaving garbage on the ice.

The bill also would require a study of the costs of expanding enforcement of the law. It has garnered bi-partisan support from lawmakers since it was introduced earlier this month and will go before a Minnesota House committee later this week.

an abandoned beer box in snow
Organizers of a campaign to reduce trash left on ice are pushing for tougher enforcement and more funding to address the problem on Minnesota lakes.
Courtesy Ann Brucciani Lyon

The majority of anglers manage their trash properly, and some resorts provide trash service on Mille Lacs said Ann Brucciani Lyon with the Mille Lacs Area Community Foundation.

“It's that group that doesn't pick up after themselves that's creating challenges for everybody else that's out there and it's affecting everybody else's enjoyment,” she said.

Brucciani Lyon said social media is rife with examples of a wide range of waste abandoned or dumped on the ice.

“You will see very heated language when people are finding a garbage bag that's been left behind or trash that's out there,” she said. “And it is a polarizing issue because people, the majority, would like to see the lakes clean and healthy.”