Statewide lake association official emphasizes role lakeshore owner groups play environmentally, socially, economically

By Jeff Forester, Executive Director
Minnesota Lakes and Rivers Advocates

It has been reported in recent media publications that lake associations are working to “privatize” or limit access to the public waters. This myth emerged at a recent DNR Roundtable.

The reality is lake associations have no hidden agenda to privatize or reduce access of the public waters. The idea is categorically untrue in both spirit and fact.

Every lake association in Minnesota, and there are over 500 of them, works to protect the lake resource for the benefit of all.

According to a Concordia College study of lake associations, they spend about $6.2 million of their own dollars for lake improvements and protection, including almost $400,000 on fish stocking.

They commit 1.25 million hours of volunteer time on lake ecology. Some of the best and largest datasets are due to lake associations, many of whom have been doing secci disc, waterfowl counts and water chemistry analysis for many decades.

They fund storm warning systems for the lake, put out navigational buoys to keep visitors safe, support lake-based curriculum in local schools and volunteer at boat ramps to educate boaters about Aquatic Invasive Species. They buy Conservation Easements to help protect water quality.

Some have put in campsite/shore lunch sites with fire rings, privies and picnic tables for visitors. They pick up garbage after ice fishing season (there are knuckleheads in every crowd), and work with local resort owners and chambers of commerce to promote tourism on the lake.

They partner with watershed district staff to promote shoreline restoration and septic system compliance. Many lake association leaders were deeply engaged in efforts to update the minimum shoreland standards. They bring in speakers to their annual meetings to talk about the importance of aquatic plants, shoreline buffers, woody debris and storm water runoff control in an effort to educate those members that don’t fully appreciate that what they do on the land impacts the water.

These people love the lake.

They have invested both financially and emotionally in it. Most have been at any given lake-place an average of 37 years, and it is where the core memories of their families are based. They are not, by and large, wealthy, with an average household income of $58,000 a year. Eighty six percent do not plan to sell their lake places and want to leave them for the next generation to enjoy.

Lake property owners help account for majority of state fishing licenses

They are anglers.

According to a phone survey conducted in 2016 for Minnesota Lakes and Rivers Advocates by Striezeck Research, about 62% of lake home and cabin owners buy a fishing license. In addition, they sell an average of four fishing licenses per property to friends and family that come up to the lake on vacation. With about 220,000 lake homes and cabins in Minnesota that means this group of people is responsible for about half the licenses sold in Minnesota each year.

But their self-interest goes beyond preserving a Minnesota heritage of time at “the lake.”

First and foremost, the benefits of lakes are financial. Water related tourism provides over $12.5 billion in revenue. Many of the members of the lake associations are business owners, realtors, teachers, workers and others that live in the community adjacent to the lake in question.

The lake economy extends to the faith community – congregant numbers and contributions swell during open water.

For many of the small towns across the lakes districts in Minnesota, lake based recreation is the primary economic driver of the town. The average cabin owner spends about $5,000 annually in the neighboring community.

Lakeshore property owners shoulder tax burden in many rural Minnesota areas 

They also pay property taxes. In 10 of Minnesota’s 87 counties, they shoulder more than 40 percent of the residential property tax burden, according to data from the state Department of Revenue. And in several counties, they pay more than 50 percent. In some lake-rich but industry-poor counties, cabins make up nearly 60% of the tax capacity. Drilling down to the smaller local taxing districts, cabin-owners account for more than 50% of the tax collections in almost 200 taxing jurisdictions.

If the utility of the lakes in these areas drops, if the fishing crashes, or runoff supported algae blooms or aquatic invasive species take over, or water levels rise or fall too much, the golden egg-laying geese die. Tax base and business suffers. Schools and other public services collapse. It is
equally true that if access to the lakes is shut down, the local economies would take a significant hit.

Lake associations, largely made up of local civic leaders, do not want to “privatize” or close access to the lakes for the simple reason that closing lakes does not serve their self-interest.

Public policy is always about working in that space between enlightened self-interest and the public good. Here is the dilemma for the Lake Association. Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS) are an existential threat to local lake-based economies and way of life. AIS are spread by humans.

(I can hear the barstool biologists claiming that ducks, turtles and other critters spread it. So far there is no scientific evidence that they have. But even more to the point, if AIS were spread via natural means, we would be measuring the spread in terms of centuries, not summers.)

Zebra mussel infestations from 30 to 181 lakes in six years

In 2012 there were 30 lakes designated as zebra mussel infested. Today there are well over 200. Of the 181 lakes with DNR carry in access only, none of them are designated as zebra mussel infested. Four have Eurasian milfoil. Many of these lakes are near infested lakes with waterfowl
moving freely between them.

Here is the real question, how to provide access in such a way that it protects the recreational values of access, prevents the spread of Aquatic Invasive Species AND is sustainable financially.

Lake associations have no plot to shut the public off the public waters.

They are working to protect a resource that is critically important to them personally, to their communities, to the state, to you.


Editor’s note: This column was prompted by recent commentary that has been critical of lake shore property associations –including articles in the statewide “Outdoor News.” Locally, the debate over muskie management, and other lake issues, have reflected perceived divisions between lake associations and other lake users.

The Press reprints the column in the interest of presenting varied viewpoints on lake advocacy. The column, slightly edited, is from the Minnesota Lakes and Rivers Advocates organization–which represents some 500 local lake associations across the state.