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Letter: Amnesty for large docks DNR decision shows lack of leadership

Two weeks ago the DNR issued a five-year, statewide General Permit that allows large dock platforms on Minnesota's recreational lakes. This permit gives the owners of large platforms amnesty from the current law, which they were violating, and sets a bad precedent for how the DNR regulates activities that affect our natural resources.

Docks are a part of Minnesota's rich lake heritage and that should not change. However, these large dock systems can damage lakes that belong to all Minnesotans. These large docks are more likely to fragment aquatic habitat, alter plant communities, and detract from the natural character of our shorelands than traditional docks.

Current dock rules which have been on the books for many years define a dock as a "narrow platform or structure extending waterward from the shoreline..." and limit the width of a dock to eight feet.

We are concerned about what our lakes are going to be like in 20 or 50 years. This permit tells us that DNR leadership finds it perfectly acceptable that large 10- by-17-foot private patios can be placed on every 50 or 75 feet of shoreline on public waters.

In a few areas of the state, lake residents began installing dock systems that include large platforms. These docks are illegal and in 2006, conservation officers wrote a dozen tickets to their owners. These dozen tickets created a political backlash and the DNR stopped enforcing dock rules. Instead, the department issued a nine-month general permit in 2007 that opened the door for large platforms. They also initiated a series of public meetings and the formation of an advisory committee.

We were members of that committee. The committee meetings resulted in a detailed set of recommendations. The five-year general permit Commissioner Holsten issued Jan. 23 is directly contrary to the committee's primary recommendations. The last permit opened the door to allow some illegal dock platforms; this new five-year permit permanently blasts the door from its hinges, and we may never be able to go back.

The committee made it clear that the permit should only be for two years, so the department could go through a legitimate rulemaking process to change the current laws related to docks. The report states: "There is broad consensus that the current dock rules are inadequate...," and "The DAC strongly recommends that the new General Permit expire upon completion of the formal rulemaking process, no later than Spring, 2010. The group feels strongly that another five-year permit will only prolong resolution of the platform dock issue."

Apparently, the DNR would rather issue a general permit to appease the dock industry and a relatively small group of lakeshore owners than get to the task of writing new rules. This is unfortunate for the future of our shorelands. This small minority of big dock owners is obviously politically well connected. Many of these folks view a large platform as a "right" of owning shoreland, even though it clearly is a privilege that can be harmful to aquatic habitat and infringe on the rights of others that use public waters. Some folks even view their dock as an extension of their real estate. A dock is not real estate, it is private property placed in public waters.

We understand that the DNR has a myriad of large issues to deal with including water appropriation for ethanol plants, the creation of a comprehensive OHV trail system, and wetland permitting related to the mining industry and agricultural drainage. However, the disregard that DNR leadership has shown for public input and the primary recommendations of the DAC raises two questions. First, why even ask people to invest time and energy into providing input or serving on a committee, only to ignore their most substantial and carefully crafted recommendations? A similar thing happened when a broad cross section of folks developed alternative shoreland rules two years ago and the Legislature had to force DNR to take the next step of rulemaking. More recently this pattern was evident when DNR leadership disregarded a committee's recommendations on OHV trails in the Mississippi Headwaters State Forest.

Second, if the DNR cannot show some leadership for resource protection on this rather straightforward dock issue, should we have any expectations that they will act in the best long-term interest of Minnesota's natural resources on any of these other, more difficult issues?

-- Henry VanOffelen, Detroit Lakes

(Henry VanOffelen is a NR Scientist, MN Center for Environmental Advocacy. The letter was also signed by Dann Siems, Beltrami Soil and Water Conservation District, Merilee Meyers, Beltrami County Lakes and Rivers Association who all make up the DNR's dock advisory committee.)