Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton made a wise wardrobe choice last week when he wore a “Lake Mille Lacs” T-shirt during a visit to the area. Unfortunately, he did not have a magic fishing pole — the kind he would have needed to immediately solve the iconic lake’s walleye troubles.
On July 26 in this space, the Star Tribune Editorial Board called on Dayton to provide leadership by visiting the lake and working on an aid package for suffering area businesses. So far, he’s delivered.
Over the past week, Dayton has met with key stakeholders, held a town hall forum in Isle, Minn., and called for a special legislative session to consider a package of zero-interest loans, property tax abatements, and extra tourism promotion and advertising for the region. He also announced that one of the Indian bands that fish the lake — the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe — would not harvest walleye in 2016.
There also will be changes in leadership at the local office of the state’s embattled Department of Natural Resources (DNR). That agency has also pledged to bolster research and management resources devoted to the lake, including adding a research and stocking station on the shore.
The governor’s admirable response to the dilemma no doubt muted statewide reaction to Sunday’s announcement that the DNR was going ahead with plans to shut down annual walleye fishing on the lake for the first time in state history at 10 p.m. Monday to protect what’s left of the walleye population. But it did not quell the anger of those whose livelihoods depend on tourism and fishing on Mille Lacs.
“I feel like nobody listened,” Linda Eno, owner of Twin Pines Resort in Garrison, told the Star Tribune.
John Odle, owner of Rocky Reef Resort in Onamia, directed his criticism at DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr. “The commissioner needs to resign or quit or be fired … ,” Odle said.
Others in the area saved their vitriol for the eight Ojibwe bands that comanage the walleye population with the DNR and set harvest quotas under terms of a court ruling upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1999.
The fact that public confidence in the DNR would be at a record low in the Mille Lacs area is no surprise. But attacks on Landwehr, who has impressed the Editorial Board as a dedicated and thoughtful steward of the state’s natural resources, will not solve the walleye problem on Mille Lacs. Neither will continued attacks on the tribes, whose 1837 treaty rights were upheld in that 1999 decision.
As we argued on July 26, all possible remedies must be on the table — from new bait, lure and limit restrictions to an aggressive stocking and hatchery program. All of those strategies were in play before last week, but thanks to Dayton’s leadership and the spotlight provided by a special session, Mille Lacs is now the state priority it should be as a bellwether for Minnesota’s $2 billion fishing industry.