Jeff Forester Speaks at Pacific Northwest Economic Region Summit PNWER

Jeff Forester's Comments at the 2015 PNWER Conference, Big Sky, MT


I want to thank the organizers of this conference, and Pacific States Marine Fisheries for inviting me to attend and making it possible.  I am very energized to see so many people from so many different states coming together in AIS work.

I am the Executive Director of Minnesota Lakes and Rivers Advocates. Our mission is to “Protect Minnesota’s Lake and river heritage for current and future generations by forging powerful links between lakes, lake advocates and policy makers.

Let me take a minute here to unpack this mission statement.

I’ll start at the end - lake advocates.  Who are these lake advocates?  The simple answer, is of course, that they are Minnesotans and Minnesotans are water people.

Minnesotan’s don’t stay in Minnesota for the weather. We stay for the lakes.

About one out of five Minnesotans has a lake cabin or home in their family.  At MLR we like to say, “Lakes are where family happens,” and this is not hyperbole or marketing hook.  It is in fact the truth for many Minnesotans.  Even those without a family cabin have been to “the lake.”  Minnesotans, to a large extent, share a common memory of quiet mornings on the front porch of some lake place, mist rising off the water, hot coffee in hand, the loons calling.  

This heritage is quickly becoming Minnesota’s best tool in our efforts to stop the spread of aquatic invasive species in Minnesota. Minnesota is moving beyond simply passing and enforcing laws, beyond educational campaigns, and is developing a civic infrastructure around AIS work by appropriating $10 million annually in County AIS Prevention Aid.

In 2009 there were only 30 lakes infested with zebra mussels in Minnesota. Last summer zebra mussels were discovered in 14 waterbodies. Those waterbodies, along with 22 connected waters, were added to the Designated Infested Waters list by the MN DNR bringing the total to over 200 designated zebra mussel infested lakes in Minnesota.

So far, this summer, I believe another four lakes have been designated as infested.

One angler I spoke with, an out of state friend who came up to Lake Vermilion to fish with me quipped,  “Maybe you should change the State motto to, “Land of 9,800 lakes?”

Minnesota’s faces some unique challenges in dealing with aquatic invasive species - we have more shoreline than the states of California, Florida and Hawaii combined.

Lakes are Minnesota’s brand and our bread and butter. According to the Outdoor Industry Association, outdoor recreation in Minnesota generates $12 billion from 28 million visitor days, 118 thousand direct Minnesota jobs, $3.4 billion in wages and salaries $815 million in state and local tax revenue. Minnesota must protect our lake and river resources.

The sheer number of lakes, accesses and boats are Minnesota’s greatest challenge in AIS efforts, they are also our greatest asset.

As Tip O'Neill famously said once, “All politics is local.” AIS is also local - the most severe impacts are definately local.  Many of the actions that can be taken to stop AIS spread are local.  The grassroots energy required to make AIS a legislative priority is local.

There is a robust cohort of over 450 lake associations in Minnesota. Some are small, a few dozen members. Other are very large, with memberships in the thousands and annual budgets in the hundreds of thousands. Until recently, these lake associations had never been politically organized. MLR realized that it would take the local lake associations, the grassroots, to create the political space for the MN DNR to begin to take the steps necessary to protect our public waters.

In 2009 Minnesota’s AIS laws had not changed significantly since the early 1990’s. Minnesota Lakes and Rivers Advocates had no lake association members. In 2009 I began reaching out to lake associations, calling their presidents on the phone, sitting down and having one on one conversations about grassroots advocacy and their role in protecting lakes. I told them that what happens in Saint Paul impacts them out on the dock. I asked them what keeps them up at night. Today MLR has over 150 lake association members, representing tens of thousands of engaged lake advocates.

We surveyed these lake associations. About 20% responded and we learned that with volunteer hours and out of pocket donations, the few groups that responded were outspending the State to protect the public waters from aquatic invasive species.

With this information in hand we went to the Minnesota Legislature to make the case that the real need in Minnesota was an increased funding and empowerment of local AIS efforts.

Senator Rod Skoe, Chair of the Senate Tax Committee, responded by writing legislation to create a standing annual ten million dollar County Aquatic Invasive Species Prevention Aid program. The funding is apportioned using a formula combining the number of public boat ramps in the county with the number of watercraft trailer parking spots. Last July 20th, the first half of a year payment was made. The next payment will arrive this July 20th and then again on December 26th.  

This funding comes directly from the State’s General fund to the counties - it is not a grant program, it is not administered by the MN DNR. The Counties must file either a draft of their program or a copy of the resolution they passed to spend the aid with the MN DNR before December 30th each year. The County has a great deal of flexibility - they can make grants to Watershed Districts, Soil and water conservation districts, local lake associations, or partner with other counties. The only requirement is that the money must be spent to prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species within their county.

The biggest unused AIS tool in Minnesota was our human resource and this funding has leveraged their energy and commitment to AIS work and acknowledged and endorsed their role in the local jurisdiction.

Minnesota has embarked on a radical new program by putting funding in at the bottom, at the grassroots.

This funding is moving the needle - and we have not enjoyed even a full cycle of funding yet:

  • Last year the MN DNR trained about 200 watercraft inspectors - so far this year over 500. Many of these are being paid for with AIS prevention aid funding.

  • Counties that had active AIS programs before this funding are ramping up, and dozens of counties that had no program are now engaged and beginning to take on AIS work. Counties are creating AIS Task Forces made up of diverse stakeholders like county personnel, SWCD personnel, lake association reps, resort owners, lake service provider businesses, and others.  These groups meet to talk about AIS and make recommendations (and often decisions) on how the AIS Prevention Aid should be spent to achieve the greatest level of success.

  • On Lake Hubert in Crow Wing County, an inspector hired with this new funding stopped a boat infested with zebra mussels, thereby keeping a non-infested lake off the infested waters list.

  • Clearwater County collaborated with Itasca State Park to start a watercraft inspector program.  Itasca is the headwaters of the Mississippi, and of the lakes and rivers in Clearwater. It is a huge destination in Minnesota. The Park had no extra money, but several public water accesses within the Park were counted as part of Clearwater County’s allocation from the state, so Clearwater County willingly gave money to the Park to set up an inspection program with paid Level I Inspectors.

  • The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had a decontamination unit at their Gull Lake site, but had no one qualified to operate it.  Cass County is contributing some of their Level II Inspectors to operate the decon site, which services southeastern Cass County and western Crow Wing County – a lake-rich region.

This new local AIS prevention aid is uncomfortable for the experts in academia and within the agencies.  Experts prefer a top down model. But there is a great deal of hope in this local funding because it has engaged and leveraged the profound energy of local lake advocates.  

If Minnesota hopes to stop the spread of zebra mussels and other AIS, the experts must recognize the critical role locals will play in stopping AIS spread and the rightness of local people claiming their jurisdiction in this work.

The hundreds of thousands of lake lovers in Minnesota once looked to the agency to protect our primary resource - lakes.  But the agency cannot possibly manage this problem alone.  Beyond that, the agency, as a system, is not set up to deal with this type of problem effectively - the systems within the MN DNR function to protect only elements of a lake resource, fishing, public access, waterfowl hunting and their funding follows these resources.

The relationship between a public who was looking to protect lakes in their entirety, and all the ecological services connected to those lakes, the tax base, as a source of drinking water, the way of life that lakes support, has grown increasingly strained. With each lake that becomes infested with zebra mussels, public impatience has increased. This same tension is evident in other areas of natural resource management.

I believe that this impatience is due to a systems failure within agencies that are not set up to manage complex problems by including the public in defining the problem and ultimately working towards solutions.

Stopping AIS requires more than the passage of rules and the enforcement of those rules. It requires a new system of public civic engagement.

Minnesota has started to create a system that includes all stakeholders in crafting solutions and implementing programs to protect our lakes.  We must continue to leverage the incredible potential energy out on the lakes and rivers. The new County Aquatic Invasive Species Prevention Aid recognizes this need and funds it.

In Minnesota we have heard that success in limiting the spread of Aquatic Invasive Species will require personal responsibility - a personal change in behavior from the general public. And that is true.  

But now, particularly in light of this new local funding, there is a deeper and more urgent truth - success will also require a fundamental change in behavior and attitudes within academia, resource management agencies, and nonprofits.  Resource management professionals like myself will have to change the way we work, we will have to alter our biases and prejudices with regard to the public. So-called experts like myself will have to accept the fact that the “ordinary citizenry” is a massive untapped potential in Minnesota and that the Legislature has endorsed their jurisdiction in this work.  We will have to continue to work in different ways and use different models for public partnerships and programs.

We will have to practice the core ideal of democracy. State resource professionals will have to re-think their ideas of jurisdiction, and recognize that citizens have a jurisdiction in governing the common resource and protecting the common good. The public, academics, businesses, sportmen’s groups and those within resource management agencies will have to pick up the common thread that binds us all - we are all citizens and we all have a role in working towards the public good of healthy, clean lakes and rivers.

Resource professionals and leaders will need to shift away from simple permitting, regulation and enforcement and accept a deeper personal responsibility as a citizen themselves, and then work to organize and help build the civic infrastructure necessary to facilitate a democratic effort to protect our lakes from aquatic invasive species.

This really is the best that Democracy can be. All citizens will have to take up the responsibility to be part of the solution, and resist the old model where governance is seen as a service that is purchased with tax revenues.

Private citizens in Minnesota are emerging and will continue to emerge as experts, not only in AIS, but in systems management, strategic planning, customer service at boat landings, educating the public with public relations campaigns. The public is capable of far more than passing out flyers.

After the County AIS Prevention Aid was put in place, a resource manager in Becker County said recently, “Now we are working on a new model - we have developed a memorandum of understanding between Lake Associations and the County...we have an AIS Panel, we will continue to partner with Lake Associations to make our AIS Aid go farther and set up a complete program. The counties can’t do it, the DNR can’t do it, the Lake Associations can’t do it.  It is going to take all of us working together. It is going to take a change in culture.”

This is a tough sell to be sure.  It runs counter to the established cultures within many agencies, nonprofits and local governments.  For non-profits like Minnesota Lakes and Rivers Advocates, there is no way to monetize true civic engagement and discourse. Governments cannot tax civic engagement. A fee cannot be charged. A permit cannot be sold.

This is the real elegance of Minnesota’s new local AIS prevention Aid.  This money is leveraging the heritage and passion of the public in addressing a complex and difficult natural resource issue.  The public can no longer sit back and expect a state agency or a non-profit to do the necessary work to protect our lakes.  Local activists can no longer point fingers and blame an agency that is “not doing its job.” And the agency can no longer put causes of failure on a recalcitrant public.  This funding leverages an untapped capacity and passion in Minnesota and is creating real and meaningful partnerships between agencies, local governments and the public.

The MN DNR is slowly adapting to this new landscape of local civic engagement.

  • The MN DNR hired two AIS Prevention Planners to directly work with counties as technical advisors and as connectors for counties looking to find AIS information.

  • The DNR recently hired two additional AIS trainers to provide free training to local units of government (LGUs).

  • DNR Water Resource Enforcement Officers (WREOs) are providing free training to local law enforcement agencies so they can write civil citations and the fines remain in the local jurisdiction.  

  • The DNR’s recently facilitated 10 regional workshops to get county reps together to talk about their successes and their challenges so counties could learn from one another.  

  • The DNR will be creating a listserv so counties can receive timely pertinent AIS information on a regular basis.

At the end of last summer zebra mussels were discovered in a metro area lake, Christmas Lake. The mussels were discovered early and there was an attempt made to eradicate them… the results thus far are mixed. The key take away is that the Christmas Lake Association had already formed strong partnerships with the local city government, the watershed district, the MN DNR and national zebra mussel researcher Dr. Dan Malloy. This partnership was in place before the infestation and drove the eradication effort with each playing a critical role. This partnership gave Minnesota a real shot at eradicating the zebra mussels in Christmas lake before they became established.

This is the real power of local AIS funding, civic infrastructure made up of working, funded partnerships between engaged citizens both within resource management agencies and in the private sector.

This is an exciting time in Minnesota’s efforts to protect our lakes and rivers. Minnesota cannot become the land of 9,800, 9,700, 9,300 lakes. We must become a leader in lake protection and the building of civic models based around critical resources and the heritage connected to those resources.

Thank you.

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