2016 Aquatic Invaders Summit Highlights Energy and Commitment

Jeff Forester’s Comments at the Opening Plenary

2016 Aquatic Invaders Summit

First, I want to thank the more than 60 speakers and moderators, the collaborators and sponsors and our co-host the Initiative Foundation who volunteered their time to put on the Aquatic Invaders Summit. A special thank to a very special man - Don Hickman - thank you for all you do.

I want to acknowledge the Lessard Sams Outdoor Heritage Council for their investment of Clean Water, Land and Legacy funds in this effort.

Actually, I want to thank every person in this room.

The first rule of leadership is to show up - each one of you is a leader and I know there are many others in your networks, committees, task forces, associations and so forth that look to you, and so, thank you for all the hard and important work that I know you do on behalf of clean and healthy waters.

The need driving this Summit is clear: the challenges of protecting Minnesota’s water quality, including Aquatic Invasive Species, are difficult and complex. Preventing the spread of aquatic invasive species requires a diversity of thought, and experience and skills. It requires active and engaged citizens from many different areas to come together, claim their jurisdiction, define their role, commit resources and work with others towards solutions.

We must do this without judgement because we all have our blind spots.

A joke to illustrate - A man walked into a bar at about 5:15 in the evening, sat down and ordered three shots of whiskey. The bartender served him, the man drank all three one after the other, and then left. But he was back the next day, and the day after that. This went on for some time and finally the bartender was curious. He asked, “I’m sorry, but I have to ask. Why do you come in every day at the same time, drink three shots of whiskey and then leave?”

The man replied, “I have two brothers, and we are close. We made a habit to get together after work, have a drink, and talk over the events of the day. Well life being what it is, work has separated us - one lives in England, the other in Seattle. So each of us, every day, in our respective time zones, goes to our favorite bar and has three drinks. It is our way of connecting I guess.”

After a time however, the man began coming in and only ordering two shots. Again the bartender could not help but ask, “I’m sorry to bother you, and I hate to intrude, but I notice you are only having two drinks each night. I hope your brothers are okay.”

“Oh they’re fine said the man. It’s just that I quit drinking.”

So the point is that we all have our blind spots, even when we are doing a good thing. With diversity of thought, and respect, we can rely on others to help us see these inevitable blind spots.

Minnesota has relied on citizen leadership in the past. The Clean Water Land and Legacy Amendment was only possible when many different groups and individuals worked together to get it passed, and they continue working together through citizen groups like the Lessard Sams Outdoor Heritage Council and the Clean Water Council to fulfill its promise.

Another example. In 2013 DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr created the Statewide AIS Advisory Committee, bringing together researchers, professional resource managers, lake association representatives, bait dealers, boat manufacturers, tribal members, marina owners, resort owners, anglers and educators. This Committee has had a huge impact. Many of the best innovations, some of which you will hear about during this Summit, are the result of collaborations formed at Advisory Committee meetings.

The statewide AIS Advisory Committee recognized two significant gaps, a lack of partnerships and a lack of local funding.

In our 2013 annual report the Advisory Committee recommended to the MN DNR that, “Local units of government are in desperate need of State investment if they are to get meaningful… protocols and programs up and running, and shield the State’s public waters from further AIS spread.”

AIS prevention and management requires local action - the impacts of AIS are felt most acutely at the local level. The costs of managing infestations are born locally. Consensus building around a program begins at the local level and the actions that can be taken to stop AIS spread are often local. The commitment and the subtle knowledge of specific conditions are local. Broad local support is the only way innovations, pilot projects or change can survive the political process or earn buy-in from the wider public.

In 2014 the MN Legislature, led by Senator Rod Skoe, closed the first gap and passed the County AIS Prevention Aid program creating a reliable funding stream which flows directly from the Department of Revenue to Counties to support local efforts to prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species.

The Counties are free to fund other entities, like watershed districts or lake associations, businesses or even other counties if doing so helps reduce the spread of AIS. This flexibility is unique, and it is generating incredible inclusion around AIS programs in many parts of the state.

The fluid nature of water makes it difficult to manage. When water is in the sky, it is the jurisdiction of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. When it falls to Earth, if it falls on a farmer’s field, it is in the farmer’s jurisdiction until it flows into the ditch, at which point the Board of Water and Soil Resources, BWSR, takes over. As the water makes its way through interconnected  wetlands, streams and lakes and underwater aquifers, it moves through the jurisdictions of soil and water conservation boards, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the DNR, and maybe the Army Corp of Engineers or the US Forest Service.

No one is in charge of water, and water is our most valuable natural resource.

Local partnerships of active citizens are the only tool that can fill the gaps between authorities, jurisdictions, regulations, conflicting agendas and siloed institutions.

Citizens, lately, have resisted claiming this role, and agencies have been slow to authentically include the public in decision making and governance. Everyone knows that partnerships are required, but we often do not know how to work together.

This, in my view, is a national problem - perhaps even international. And the County AIS Prevention Aid can, if used well, energize the solution.

Beginning in the 1980s the idea that government should be run like a business took hold. Citizens became consumers and relinquished our jurisdiction to experts and bureaucrats who were hired with our tax dollars to provide a service and a product - clean water. Healthy lakes. Walleye.

When consumers became unhappy with the way those resources were being managed they often pointed fingers and charged that the agency or institution, the experts, were not doing their job.

Forty years after this shift, public confidence in our our governments, institutions, agencies, courts, universities and systems is at an all time low.

I want to put forth the idea that our government agencies and public institutions have not failed us - we as citizens have failed them by voluntarily giving up our jurisdiction in governing for the common good, by relinquishing our role as an active and engaged citizen. I am talking about more than voting as an act of citizenship - I am talking about governing in our areas of influence, claiming a jurisdiction and then defining a role that we can play in that jurisdiction and committing time, experience, and funding to solve a common problem.

By funding Aquatic Invasive Species efforts at the local level, the County AIS Prevention Aid affirms the idea that citizens have the power to make change, solve problems, and advance the public good. Citizens can and should govern.

In AIS programs across the state, Citizens are moving from a passive recipient of services, or victim of regulation to that of an active citizen. Citizens are providing services, designing and building consensus for regulations or programs. As they do this work, they build energy around the issue and momentum towards solutions.

MN COLA, who will be presenting here, has just finished a follow up survey to a spending questionnaire they completed in 2012/2013. They found that since the advent of the County Prevention Aid Funding voluntary local spending on AIS activities has nearly doubled statewide. When the funding was first proposed, one of the comments I heard was that local people would sit back, disengage, stop funding local efforts at invasive weed management, inspection, education or communication. The opposite has been true.

Some County Commissioners are hesitant to hire employees and buy equipment with County AIS Prevention Aid funds, fearing that once they have made the investment, the State will end the program and they will be forced to carry the full expense.

After three years the funding is becoming increasingly secure. In 2015 two legislators, both from districts with few lakes, introduced bills in the House and Senate to repeal the County AIS Prevention Aid funding. In the week before the scheduled Committee hearing in the House, legislators received over 3500 emails and phone calls in opposition to the repeal efforts. The bill never had a vote and in the Senate it never had a committee hearing. There is deep bipartisan support for this funding and the more County AIS planners include the public in their efforts, the deeper the support becomes.

But more importantly, County Prevention Aid has been successful. Angling groups, resort owners, faith communities, and businesses are getting involved in these local efforts. Partnerships are forming between counties. The MN DNR has recently come out with a study showing that the rate of increase in AIS spread is flattening. There is data to support the idea that your efforts are working. Most importantly, across the state, infested watercraft have been intercepted and stopped before launching into an uninfested lake.

As Dr. Sorensen noted, some geoscientists are claiming that our planet has entered a new epoch, the Anthropocene.

The Anthropocene is a new era marked by human-caused change. One recent paper on the topic notes, (quote) “In a world fundamentally altered by anthropogenic processes, problems encountered in ecosystem management, and in particular in conservation biology and resource management, are becoming increasingly complex, where problems may not have a single, technical solution. More specifically, decisions regarding conservation in the Anthropocene need to consider the social and economic context, including the differing values stakeholders use when assessing risk.”

Humans spread Aquatic Invasive Species. The spread is a reflection of our values, with our most popular lakes becoming infested first and then serving as super spreaders. If Minnesotans did not value water, if we did not own more boats per capita than any other state, if we did not use and enjoy our lakes, aquatic invasive species would not be spreading in Minnesota.

The other side of that coin is that if we were not deeply concerned with the welfare of our lakes, none of us would be here today. So it is up to the people in this room, each of us a civic leader in our specific jurisdictions, to define the balance.

So far, in Minnesota, we have been following a species by species strategy, and this has not worked. It is like a statewide game of whack-a-mole. As a new species is discovered in a lake we scramble to find a control method that will kill that species and put out more calls to boaters to clean, drain and dry. These efforts have slowed the spread without a doubt. But we remain reactive instead of proactive.

If we shift our focus from species to vectors, we will become proactive. We will also run squarely into a deep seated and long standing value - access. The lakes and rivers in Minnesota are owned by the public.

We will never be successful trying to manage aquatic invasive species. We must manage vectors, and that means managing users. It means having difficult conversations among a broad and diverse set of civic leaders. Managing users means working in partnerships. Managing people without a broad based, transparent process that includes active citizens from many jurisdictions is impossible.

This is not an activity that a government agency or a politician can lead. This discussion must begin at the local level among committed civic leaders working to solve a problem. It must happen in church basements and town halls, at picnic shelters and grocery store lines and at AIS Task Force meetings. It should begin here, today.

As an example, I’ll bring up the ill-fated boat trailer decal proposal.

The original proposal sought to educate both Minnesota boat owners and visitors to Minnesota about the current AIS laws in Minnesota, and the steps they should take to avoid spreading AIS. The trailer decal would have generated a small amount of revenue for DNR AIS programs. The law passed with very little comment, but two years later when it was implemented, resort owners complained that it would impact tourism. How would their clients be able to comply? Likewise fishing tournament organizers, who draw contestants from across the county, had similar concerns. The law was repealed.

The needs the law sought to address remained unmet.

MN DNR revenues for AIS work are declining and boaters are still bringing watercraft into the state that are not clean, are not drained, are not dry. They are still infesting new Minnesota lakes with invasive plants and animals from outside Minnesota. Koronis is proof of this.

I hope that all of us in this room can get behind legislation to increase the AIS surcharge on boater registrations. We must address the funding gap for the MN DNR. Hopefully that problem can be solved in the Legislature - that is their role.

As for out of state visitors that do not know our laws or Best Management Practices, that problem is being addressed from the ground up, by citizens. In a number of places across the state, resort owners, county AIS planners, Tribal representatives, academics and fishing tournament organizers and businesses have come together to put in place a plan that closes the gap the trailer decal sought to close, and does so without harming tourism or fishing tournaments. They are developing models that can be used in other parts of the state. You will hear about these efforts at some of the sessions later today and tomorrow.

There was a time when only one lake had eurasian watermilfoil, Minnetonka. Not so many years ago Lake Peppin was the only inland lake in Minnesota that had zebra mussels. Just last year Lake Koronis was the only lake that had starry stonewort.

We had the opportunity back then to maybe contain these species in the water body in which they were first found, and to work to identify the vector, the path over which the infested watercraft or water related equipment had traveled to the new lake. If we had been aggressive and blocked that vector, and controlled the newly infested lake, we might have been able to keep those invasive species in those individual lakes.

We did not.

One of the main why we did not is that resource managers were hesitant to impede access. Minnesota loves lakes and rivers and we value access to them very highly.

So to my mind the central issue in our AIS plans has got to revolve around access. Can we build a new public consensus around access, and when it might be in our collective best interest to limit or control access to achieve a broader public benefit?

At a number of Sessions you will hear speakers from out East and out West who have navigated the politics of access, and were able to build a consensus at the local level to take the actions required to protect the water resources in their care.  These resource managers identified the Civic Leaders in their areas, and then worked with them to define the problem and then craft a solution that makes sense for them.

We can prevent the spread of Aquatic Invasive Species. We are not suffering from a complete lack of funding. Our science is pretty good and we are quickly filling the holes in our understanding. We have good Best Management Practices. We could stop the further spread of Aquatic Invasive Species tomorrow.

If I were king, these are the five things that I would do today.

  1. Create fines commensurate with the potential damage AIS can cause,

  2. Have Mandatory roadside inspections strategically placed to intercept watercraft and relieve the need to cover every lake access in the state,

  3. Implement a boat tagging system to expedite the process,

  4. Control infested boats once they are intercepted until we are assured that they pose no threat,

  5. Close heavily infested or high risk accesses like Koronis - until we are assured they pose no threat to other lakes.  

But - I am not king. And that is a good thing. Like the guy in the bar, I have blind spots.

I am not personally harmed by a drop in tourism. I have a boat on Lake Vermilion that has not left Lake Vermilion since 1972 - roadside boat inspection stations would not inconvenience me. I will never have to wait in line at an access on opening day of fishing. To my credit, I will never spread aquatic invasive species either.

So, because I have blind spots, I seek out partners. And it is important for me to note that the Sponsors and Collaborators of this event may not support the solutions I just put forth.

In fact many of the sponsors and supporters of this event have bristled at these ideas. Some of the supporters and collaborators of this event believe, for good reason, that controlling accesses or even closing them temporarily sets a bad precedence, they worry that roadside inspection and larger fines would impact tourism or depress fishing license sales and associated revenues.

From their perspective, my solutions won’t work.

But they, like me, support the idea of building partnerships, or sharing information and ideas and strategies and working together.

Many of the sponsoring or collaborating organizations of the Aquatic Invaders Summit have had remarkable success solving resource problems at the local level, at improving wetlands for waterfowl, bringing back the wild american turkey, at creating habitat to protect pollinators. They have had these successes because they have formed partnerships and found ways to achieve these goals for the public good that do not harm farmers, or other landowners, solutions that work for local communities, not against them.

We all recognize that aquatic invasive species represent a real threat to our lakes and our way of life. We all know that bringing together civic leaders from as many different perspectives as possible, and working together towards solutions is the best starting point for progress on most resource problems.

We all know that if we do not come together to solve this problem, then we will all suffer together.

I am not here to point fingers at the MN DNR or any other group. The MN DNR is charged with providing access to our natural resources, to provide lumber from our timber stands, minerals from our rocks, game from our forests and fish from our lakes and rivers while still protecting those resources for the future.

That is a tough line to walk. Those are difficult and often competing missions. All groups and organizations working on AIS must do their work in that difficult space between providing access so that all can benefit from our remarkable lakes and rivers, and using these resources in such a way that the current benefits are preserved and the resources are protected for future generations.

Lake Koronis is a perfect illustration of this tension: the access is so heavily infested and the species is so easily transported, that providing access at that spot is a direct contradiction to the goal of protecting the resource for future generations.

So where is the balance between access and protection? That question is appropriate and the discussion overdue. Now is the time for anglers, Tribal members, resort owners, lake association folks, local leaders in business and the faith community, agency and local resource managers to discuss it.

We control access on our public lands. Hunting is a Minnesota right guaranteed in our Constitution, yet we prevent hunting on some public lands to protect nesting sites or increase herd numbers; the timber and mining industries are incredibly important to Minnesota’s economy, yet we prevent logging or mining in some areas to protect water quality, aesthetic utility or ecosystem integrity. We have taken steps to protect terrestrial habitats that we have not taken to protect aquatic habitats. I think this is because we are terrestrial creatures, we see changes to our landscape and understand the consequences. We do not see easily below the surface of the water, and are perhaps slower to note the changes taking place beneath the waves. But it is time to have these discussions, and the place to have them first, where they will have the best, most honest hearing, is at the local level. The place to begin is here, now, at this conference and at local meetings into the future.

As agencies and public servants at all levels of government make more space for civic governance, and as citizens become more adept, as rapport builds between groups that have not traditionally worked together, then the decisions made will not be controversial and they will be more productive.

This process, over time, will lead to increased confidence in our institutions, not because citizens feel that their voices have been heard, but because they have been actively involved in framing the problem and are at least partially responsible for the solution.

The solution to the continued spread of aquatic invasive species is here in this room. We are the solution.

So, welcome to the 2016 Aquatic Invaders Summit. This is a participatory event. It is an opportunity to have these difficult conversations around the meaning of access, the roles and jurisdictions of various groups, the legislative framework under which we are currently working. It is an opportunity to hear what is happening across the state and country, and work with others to identify the gaps that remain and build consensus on how to best close those gaps.

This effort will require some skill. It will require each of us to move past our personal agendas, and come together to work for the public good - protecting the public waters from invasive species without losing the benefits those water provide to all Minnesotans. This work, simply put, is governance. This Active Citizenship requires citizens to set aside cynicism and its cousin apathy. It requires that we withhold judgement. It removes the luxury of finger pointing. It demands that public agencies and public employees work to move beyond civic engagement, beyond listening to the public and make space for citizens to participate in governance around an issue. The civic leaders in your jurisdictions are your partners, not your clients, stakeholders or opponents.

It will require special interest organizations, public employees, citizen non-profits and other groups to reject defining their role by the interests they serve and move to a deeper responsibility and take on the role of an active citizen working with others citizens for the common good.

I would like to offer four simple Civic Standards to help guide this process for today and into the future:

  • All those impacted by the problem help define the problem given the realities of their situation.

  • All are accountable for contributing resources (leadership/time, knowledge, constituencies and dollars) to solve the problem.

  • All are engaged in decision and policy making that contributes to the common good.

  • All implement policies grounded in civic principles in the places where they have the authority to act.

So thank you for coming here today. Thank you for taking a leadership role within your area of influence to do the work you do protecting lakes. And thank you for all the work I know you will do in the future. The state of Minnesota and future generations owe you a debt of gratitude.

I hope you have a good two days - if there is anything you need, please do catch up with me and ask.

Thank you.

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