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Dan Gunderson, Minnesota Public Radio News, Published November 17 2013

Dispute arises over plans to fight aquatic invasive species in Minnesota

MOORHEAD – Minnesota’s strategy to slow the spread of aquatic invasive species is caught up in controversy.

The Lessard Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, charged with allocating money from the state’s Legacy Fund for conservation projects, angered members of the Minnesota Coalition of Lake Associations when it replaced the group’s proposal with one of its own.

For years, the council has used a process to rank each submitted proposal before sending top-ranked projects to the Legislature and governor for approval.

However, this year, the council broke with that tradition when it replaced the proposal from the lake associations with its own $3.6 million plan to fight aquatic invasive species.

“This is the first time the council has taken this kind of an action,” said Outdoor Heritage Council Chairman David Hartwell. “Frankly, if we had had proposals that hit the mark, there would have been no appetite for this kind of strategy. So I don’t think that this is the desire of the council to do this.”

The coalition, which claims to represent more than 40,000 lake residents across the state, submitted a proposal to the council that would spend $25 million for boat cleaning stations around the state.

Hartwell said the idea was narrowly focused with little chance of success. As a result, he said, it received a low ranking from the council.

“The response in the past would have been to say, ‘no’ to the proposal and wait for another year and collectively we obviously didn’t want to wait,” Hartwell said. “This is not a problem where you can have a narrow focus and win. You have to have a comprehensive focus if you’re going to win. What that is, nobody really knows.”

Instead, the Outdoor Heritage council wants to broaden the focus to achieve a comprehensive strategy by asking local governments and private groups around the state for ideas to fight invasive species. Over five years, those ideas would be considered for matching grants, pilot projects would be developed and their effectiveness monitored.

Lake property groups are concerned with that strategy. Joe Shneider, vice president of the Coalition of Lake Associations, worries that spending time asking for ideas will slow action and potentially result in a less focused strategy.

In contrast, Shneider said, the coalition’s approach could have an immediate effect because invasive species are often spread on boats and other equipment moved from lake to lake.

But the plan relies largely on voluntary participation by boat owners to clean their crafts after visiting an infested lake, which Hartwell said is a fatal flaw.

‘Apples and oranges’

As zebra mussels have spread to dozens of lakes across the state in the past five years, local governments and lake groups have been clamoring for more money to fight the invasion. The Legislature appropriated more than $8 million this year for state Department of Natural Resources aquatic invasive species programs.

Last year, after the heritage council rejected aquatic invasive species project proposals, the Legislature added $3 million for statewide aquatic invasive programs. Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed the funding, saying he wanted to respect the autonomy of the council.

This year, the council received several invasive species projects proposals, including a $25 million plan by the coalition of lake associations to set up boat cleaning stations around the state. It would have the DNR administer the project, which would give grants to local organizations.

When the council completed the process of allocating more than $102 million for projects, Shneider initially thought it had awarded $3.6 million to his proposal for cleaning stations.

“I must tell you until I saw more things happen in the subsequent days, I did not realize our proposal had been replaced,” he said.

A vote by the Outdoor Heritage Council in September approved funding for the Coalition of Lake Associations proposal, but replaced its contents. The plan to set up boat decontamination stations became a proposal to solicit invasive species project ideas from organizations across the state.

“It’s apples and oranges, really,” Shneider said. “And I don’t quite frankly understand why they linked it to our proposal given that it was so different. Our Minnesota COLA organization is not really on a leadership role on it. We aren’t defining it; we aren’t operating it.”

‘Some work to be done’

Some coalition members accused Hartwell, chairman of the Outdoor Heritage Council, of hijacking their project and cutting them out of the process, a charge Hartwell rejects.

The language that established the council gives it wide latitude in how it chooses the projects it recommends to the Legislature.

But a provision in the law requires a clear process:

“The council shall develop and implement a process that ensures that citizens and potential recipients of funds are included throughout the process, including the development and finalization of the council’s recommendations.”

Hartwell said all involved groups were asked for input on the new proposal.

Shneider admits many members of the lake associations group are unhappy with the process, but he believes lake residents must support the $3.6 million proposal.

“There is some work to be done to soothe their concerns,” Shneider said. “But at the end of the day, if we’re focused on the problem as opposed to our egos or parochial solutions, this is still a good thing.”

If the projects are carefully chosen, $3.6 million can make a big difference in the fight against aquatic invasive species, Shneider said.

Under the Outdoor Heritage Council proposal, the Little Falls-based Initiative Foundation will choose which projects to fund.

Hartwell chose the foundation to administer the funds rather than the DNR because DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr told the council that Minnesota Legacy funding should not be used for aquatic invasive species programs. Landwehr suggested such a use of funding might be unconstitutional.

Some council members refute that idea. They say aquatic invasive species projects protect aquatic habitat.

Council member and state Rep. Rick Hansen supports the decision to bypass the DNR.

“When there’s an agency that says they don’t believe it’s constitutionally allowed, having them administer that fund may not the best place for that,” said Hansen, DFL-St. Paul.

Hansen said he expects the DNR will collaborate on the local projects if the Legislature approves the unusual proposal.

Last week, DNR Invasive Species Program Supervisor Ann Pierce said the agency supports the Outdoor Heritage Council recommendation and will work to ensure the proposal complements DNR programs.

Some council members wonder if the proposal will get that far. State Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, supported funding the aquatic invasive species proposal, but isn’t sure allocating Legacy money to fund undetermined projects will survive legislative scrutiny.

“I think it’s worth a try to see what kind of proposals we can get,” McNamara said. “It’s a tough one. Three million dollars is a lot of money. I’m concerned we create some false hope, but at the same point I think we need to try some things.”

‘Have to be aggressive’

The Outdoor Heritage Council will finalize its recommendations to the Legislature next month. If the Legislature and the governor approve, local groups will have a chance to propose innovative solutions for aquatic invasive species sometime this year.

Hartwell, who thinks no one has made hard choices needed to successfully stop the spread of aquatic invasive species, wants the grant-awarding process to change.

For example, the state hasn’t been willing to increase fines for violating aquatic invasive species laws “to the point where it actually hurts,” he said.

Hartwell said a more-aggressive approach would include hard choices such as mandatory boat cleaning, much bigger fines for violating invasive species laws, or perhaps limited access to some lakes.

“It’s about money, it’s about regulation and it’s about willingness to change practices that have been with us for generations in terms of our freedom to do what we want when we want without consideration of the impact,” he said. “I would hope we see a range of proposals and aggressive is not something that scares me. I think we have to be aggressive or we’re going to lose.”