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As he guided his boat across the surface of Cross Lake, state conservation officer Cary Shoutz studied the lakeshore house in front of him. It was 6,900 square feet of living space crammed on a 23,000-square-foot lot with a lawn sprawling downhill. "The elevation is going to drain all the runoff into this channel here," said Shoutz, a 22-year veteran of Minnesota's lakeside enforcement wars. "It's legal. But it would have been nice if they could have left natural growth near the water and built a catch basin for the runoff. ... They had a chance here to do something really special, and we didn't get the message to them, obviously."
He chuckled and shook his head. The laugh is Shoutz's version of a shrug of resignation tinged with gallows humor. Word about environmental damage to Minnesota's lakes has not hit home for most of the decade Shoutz has worked on Cross Lake.
"I think we should be worried," he said. "In the future, we're going to have some issues with water quality and erosion."
Shoutz is one of 191 enforcement agents who form what the state Department of Natural Resources calls the "thin green line." These agents are supposed to protect 12,000 lakes and other natural resources from safety and environmental violations, but some conservation officials, including Shoutz, say the line has been stretched by stagnant staffing during a 30-year boom in lakefront development.
Shoutz spends his days on the water trying to investigate complaints and look for environmental and safety violations on roughly 100 lakes. "I'm lucky if I get out on some of them twice a summer," he said.
Shoutz believes manpower problems, development-friendly zoning officials and an easy-does-it approach to enforcement are permanently damaging the state's lakes. He thinks most environmental cops share his frustration.
On Minnesota's most popular vacation lakes, nutrients draining off fertilized lawns pollute the water. The drainage increases erosion and breeds algae that can smother native plants and take away places for fish to eat and spawn. Some people buy lawn mowers called weed rollers for lake bottoms. They chop down both invasive and crucial native weeds, causing more problems. Sand blankets that form man-made beaches cover natural vegetation along the shoreline. Giant, illegal dock platforms turn public waters into private patios. Big boats and personal watercraft blast along at 40 or 50 miles per hour on lakes with no speed limits.
"If you're out here on a weekend, you can't avoid 3-foot waves, even if there's no wind," Shoutz said.
He recalled the 2004 death of a drunken young woman who fell off the front of a speeding pontoon boat during an on-the-water birthday party. It was, he said, a tragic byproduct of rowdiness that's increasing.
Aerial photos showed 5,000 watercraft on the 14-lake Whitefish chain last July 4, Shoutz said. At narrow, no-wake channels between lakes, boats stacked up two abreast for hundreds of yards. It was so crowded that the seaplanes of rich lakefront homeowners couldn't find a place to land.
Again, Shoutz chuckled and shook his head.
'Lax and unresponsive'
Shoutz and his wife, Nikki, also a conservation officer, don't live on a lake, but they do putter on the water in a 14-foot boat with a 9.9-horsepower outboard. "I'm old school," Shoutz said. "So is my wife."
As he eased to a stop by a lakefront house, Shoutz noted that a pair of cigarette boats were especially well-equipped. One boat had two 250-horsepower engines bolted to its rear end. The other had three 300-horsepower engines.
"It's just amazing," Shoutz muttered.
Like every good soldier, the stocky, sandy-haired 53-year-old takes direction well. The past six years he feels his marching orders have been to compromise. It's not a policy directive, just his sense of where things stand.
In each of the past six years, conservation officers typically issued just 200 tickets and warnings statewide for environmental offenses.
"At certain times, we get tougher on restrictions, maybe during certain administrations, whether it's maybe a different commissioner with the DNR or a different governor," Shoutz said. "I think we've been in the more compromising position for the last six years. The whole sentiment of the country right now is too much government. Regulation means government. And when we try to apply that regulation, we get resistance."
Some people just do what they want, hoping they won't get caught, while paying a pittance if they do. Lakefront environmental violations carry maximum fines of $300, plus court costs. The state can force property owners to repair what they destroy, which can cost property owners $500 to $5,000 depending on the scope of the violation, Shoutz said. However, from 2005 to 2010, the state issued a total of only 141 restoration orders, including five in Cass County and one in Crow Wing County.
Crow Wing has been "lax and unresponsive to lakeshore violations," said Shoutz, so officers are reluctant to waste their time on cases that won't go forward.
Not long ago, Shoutz ticketed a contractor who poured several tons of rock into 25 feet of water to create a personal fishing hole for his client. Shoutz said the contractor paid a $150 ticket, knowing the state could not afford to dredge the rocks from the lake.
Shoutz found another disturbing scene when he steered his boat into a small bay that used to be full of bulrush, a tough marsh plant that looks like grass and forms a vital habitat for young fish. Now, the bay is circled by manicured lawns and landscaping, except for a tiny natural section.
"Here's a prime example of a bay that should be all aquatic vegetation," Shoutz explained. "Much of it was willow. I stepped in and saved what little is left. But most of the bulrush got removed. The guy wanted to take it out. He was about halfway through taking it out when I got here. I wrote him a ticket. But he paid $309,000 for that lot. So my little $150 ticket was like. ..."
Another chuckle and shake of the head.
"I've quit giving real estate advice," Shoutz said. "I've told people they can't destroy [bulrush]. They pass on [buying] a lot and no sooner do they do that than somebody bought it and wiped out the bulrush. They come back to me and say, 'You don't know what you're talking about.'"
Hecker finds loophole
While there are larger homes on the Whitefish Chain, disgraced car dealer Denny Hecker's 10,000-square-foot lakefront house may be the most infamous. A fancy den on the water's edge replaced what was once a dilapidated boathouse. "They left the frame and rebuilt it," Shoutz said. "And that is permitted."
Shoutz said Hecker also paid about $20,000 to move a lakeside deck on an adjoining guest home from one waterfront location to another.
Shoutz cruised past discarded tree stumps and a net placed around the base of a small, uninhabited island to hold the ground in place. Fish darted in and out of the woody debris on the lake bottom. Ecologically, this is what Minnesota's lakes need, Shoutz said. Practically, it is not what they will get.
On another stretch of shoreline, a bald eagle sat atop a tree. Just beyond the bird's perch, a truck with a tank of liquid fertilizer crossed a bridge.
"You see the old ChemLawn on most of these places," Shoutz said.
In front of him, a cathedral-ceilinged manse not much smaller than an actual cathedral had the wrong kind of erosion control and way too much lawn and sand to be good for the lake. Once again, the message about pollution had not gotten through.
Shoutz turned his boat and headed off to another corner of the Whitefish Chain. He knew that it, too, would be covered with all-too-familiar starter castles, drainage problems and illegally large docks that he wouldn't cite in the interest of compromise.
"Where do you draw the line?" he asked. "Where do you say enough is enough?"
Cary Shoutz chuckled and shook his head -- a little more grimly this time.
Jim Spencer • 612-673-4029