Minnesota court battle brews over invasive species

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There's a fight in Minnesota between those who say every effort must be taken to protect the state's waters from invasive species and those who say residents have a right to unfettered access to any lake or river in the state.

A new gate on Christmas Lake, designed to keep invasive species out of the water, is at the center of a lawsuit filed last week by three west-metro lake associations against the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources . The associations say the state has failed to devise a comprehensive plan against invasive species and has thwarted their efforts to protect the lakes they treasure, the Star Tribune newspaper reported.

But some say the lawsuit and the gates will only inflame the debate, not solve the problem.

“It's not clear to the general public that the battleground for zebra mussels in 2012 is Minnesota,” said Joe Shneider, president of the Christmas Lake Homeowners Association, one of the litigants. "Every state east of us has lost the war.”

“Those aren't their lakes,” Vern Wagner, executive director of Anglers for Habitat, told the newspaper. “Those lakes belong to the citizens of Minnesota.”

DNR officials say they are doing more than ever to fight invasive species such as zebra mussels and milfoil. The legislature has increased funding from $3.8 million in 2010 to an expected $8.6 million this year. And now the DNR is asking for laws that would require boat owner education, give the agency authority to conduct mandatory boat inspections and allow it to delegate that authority to counties and cities.

But some want the state to inspect every boat before launch in any of the state's 13,000 lakes, said Luke Skinner, supervisor of the state's invasive species program.

“These are big issues that the DNR can't be the sole arbiter on,” Steve Hirsch, director of the DNR's division of water and ecological resources, told the newspaper. “It gets into what level of government intrusion is appropriate.”

Many Minnesota lakes are choked with milfoil, while zebra mussels have been confirmed in nine rivers and 29 lakes and might be in 30 more that are connected to them. Even more terrifying species could be on the way. The zebra's uglier cousin, the quagga mussel, has infested parts of the Great Lakes. Hydrilla, another milfoil-like plant, and Asian carp, which have crashed ecosystems in rivers in the South, are marching northward.

“Aquatic invasive species in the land of 10,000 lakes are incompatible with our way of life," said Jeff Forester, executive director of the Minnesota Seasonal and Recreational Property Owners Association. “We have to do what we have to to stop them.”

Gates "are inherently controversial," DNR officials said in a February letter to the watershed district. Combined with mandatory inspections, they would likely create a backlash against efforts to control invasive species. Most important, they argued, the DNR does not have the legal authority to require inspections, and neither do local governments.

The lawsuit filed last week argues that the DNR does have the authority.

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