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Duluth-area lakehome owners want to limit public access to lakes

Phyllis Mead and Dan Dexter listen as Scott Mead talks about a possible Department of Natural Resources public boat launch on Big Pequaywan Lake north of Duluth. The three are among a group of Pequaywan Lake residents opposing the plan because of concerns over the possible introduction of invasive species. (Steve Kuchera/Duluth News Tribune)

DULUTH - Property owners on Big Pequaywan Lake north of Duluth say they're fighting a new public boat landing on their lake because of the threat of invasive species.

But they also want to go much further -- a moratorium on all new public water access across Minnesota.

Several cabin and home owners on the 450-acre lake say the threat of transient boaters and anglers accidentally introducing invaders should trump the public's right to access the lake.

"This isn't just about our lake. The DNR shouldn't be in the business of contributing to the spread of invasive species across the state," said Dan Dexter, who owns a cabin on the lake, which has no public access. "Everyone knows that boats and bait buckets and trailers moving from lake to lake are how this stuff spreads. So why do we want to open up pristine waters to that threat?"

Department of Natural Resources officials say the group's push for a statewide moratorium is the first effort in Minnesota they're aware of to halt new boat landings because of the link to invasive species.

Dexter recently retired after 25 years with the DNR's fisheries division. He has seen how lakes with public access are ripe for introductions of foreign species that can wreak ecological and financial havoc.

"It should be illegal to move any water out of any lake, period," Dexter said.

Phyllis Mead, president of the Pequaywan Lakes Association, finds it ironic that the state is working to keep new invasive species out of Lake Superior while doing little to regulate inland lakes.

"We understand the DNR has an obligation to increase public access. But they also have an obligation to protect waters from invasive species," she said. "That seems to be more important to me. There are plenty of boat landings around here already."

So far, Mead said her letters to DNR officials, including Commissioner Mark Holsten, have received no response. The group also has contacted key state lawmakers. They hope to convince the DNR or the Minnesota Legislature to impose the moratorium until a statewide plan is in place to test all lakes for invasive species and stop their spread.

Minnesota has nearly 12,000 lakes and thousands of miles of rivers, but fewer than 2,000 waterways have public access. The DNR has nearly 1,600 boat landings it owns and operates and 300 more it helps run with cities, towns and counties. There also are hundreds of lakes with private access points, such as resorts.

"But it's far less than half the lakes that have any way for the public to access," said Ken Skaar, who leads the DNR's efforts to buy and build boat landings.

The DNR is mandated by state law to expand public boating opportunities, Skaar said. Statewide, the agency builds three to a 12 new landings on new lakes and rivers every year.

The DNR is continually looking for opportunities to provide access, said Tom Peterson, Two Harbors area Trails and Waterways supervisor for the DNR.

"Most Minnesotans don't have the resources to own waterfront property, and it's our job, our duty, to provide access," he said. "These are public waters, public lakes, and they should have public access."

Peterson confirmed Pequaywan is on the agency's short list for new landings but said he can't yet discuss any details.

DNR officials also aren't yet buying the invasive species argument, saying that under that reasoning, they would have to shut down all existing public landings on lakes that don't now have invasive species.

"There's no way we could ever guarantee that [invasive species] won't be spread," Peterson said. "So that would shut down any new public access anywhere."

Doug Jensen, invasive species expert for the University of Minnesota Sea Grant in Duluth, said eliminating public access won't eliminate the chance invasive species will enter a lake -- nor will adding a public access necessarily mean an infestation.

"Boats using public access are only one vector," he said. "There are a lot of other vectors for species introductions."

Jensen said public education, inspections at boat landings, lake monitoring and law enforcement have helped slow the spread of many species. Zebra mussels are in less than a dozen Minnesota waterways, he noted, despite being in the Twin Ports harbor for two decades and the Mississippi River nearly as long.