Tucked inside a new state law that distributes $378 million in taxpayer dollars to create jobs and spur economic development is an unusual $150,000 payment to a single fishing resort.
The money is slated for “small resort businesses located in the city of Isle with less than $350,000 in annual revenue, at least four rental units, which are open during both summer and winter months, and whose business was adversely impacted by a decline in walleye fishing on Lake Mille Lacs,” according to the language of the bill.
That curious level of specificity is not a coincidence. The money is intended for Hunter Winfield’s Resort, a small outfit on Mille Lacs that caters to walleye anglers. The resort owners say they were hurt badly by the Department of Natural Resources’ (DNR) decision to end the 2015 season in August to preserve the walleye population.
For Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, this was a way to help a small business in her district she believes was hurt by the DNR. The method of giving money was “novel,” she allowed.
From the perspective of the DNR, however, the Legislature is setting a dangerous precedent: That the state is liable for any economic loss caused by its policy decisions, even those intended to preserve a natural resource for the long term and thus prevent larger economic losses later on.
“If the issue is that one business suffered a loss because of fishing restrictions on Mille Lacs that were intended to restore the walleye population, there are probably 1,000 businesses on Mille Lacs alone that could make a similar argument,” said Tom Landwehr, DNR commissioner. He pointed to businesses that rely on hunting, skiing, canoeing or other outdoor activities — including 3,000 fishing lakes — that could demand cash every time the DNR needs to limit those activities to sustain the deer herd or protect a forest or lake.
In response to Landwehr’s argument, lawmakers still handed out the money. But, by creating a sort of special category that fit Hunter Winfield’s specific situation, they designed a way to deny that the state is ultimately responsible for its decisionmaking on fisheries and other natural resources.
The decision left at least one other Mille Lacs-area resort owner wondering why the help wasn’t spread more widely.
“There should be help for all the resorts up here, and those monies should come out of the DNR budget,” said Terry Thurmer, owner of Terry’s Boat Harbor south of Garrison. “They caused it, they should help pay for it.”
Thurmer said the DNR mismanaged the lake for years and ignored the pleas of resort owners and sport fishermen, creating economic distress to this day.
Margie Christensen of Hunter Winfield’s said losses were much higher than $150,000 but said they are grateful for the money: “We sincerely appreciate the senators and representatives who thoughtfully listened to and heard our concerns.”
The resort made its case before the Joint House-Senate Subcommittee on Claims, which is where Minnesotans can go if they believe the state has hurt them and they have no recourse in the courts or any other avenue for redress.
The claims board agreed that the DNR had hurt their business and they deserved some money.
Rep. Duane Quam, R-Byron, a member of the board, said the DNR had decades of data and did not properly alert the businesses of the risk of a walleye collapse.
Landwehr disagreed. “We annually monitor the status of the fishery, we work with the [Indian] bands to establish a safe harvest level, and we consult with a local advisory committee — which includes representatives from many local businesses — on setting specific regulations,” he said.
Still, nature takes its course, Landwehr said: “We have no control over young walleye survival, so couldn’t predict or prevent the loss of several generations of fish. No one can realistically say what the walleye population [will be] two or three years from now; to say it was predicted 25 years ago is ridiculous,” he said.
Although the claims board agreed with Hunter Winfield’s over DNR’s argument, the board was wary of the ramifications.
“The consensus was that there was a precedence problem,” Quam said.
The solution: Stick it in a budget bill, which would seem to carry the same precedence problem, albeit in a different venue.
Quam said he had no problem with it: “I believe it prevents the generation of a claims committee precedent,” he said. He also said it’s not unusual for the Legislature to step in and help people when they have been hit with natural disasters or other events out of their control.
Joel Carlson, lobbyist for the state resort association, said using the claims board to help struggling businesses on Mille Lacs after the DNR shut down the walleye season was broadly discussed in 2015. As it turns out, Hunter Winfield’s was the only outfit to put together a claim, which Carlson said was detailed and persuasive. He also said the process of assembling the claim was itself time-consuming and expensive, which could explain why no other resort owners applied for one.
Christensen said lawmakers did their job: “The help from the Legislature gives us strong hope for our community. Not just businesses but for those who have jobs, which impact the schools, the taxes to the county and the list goes on.”