David Holmbeck contacted me this spring with an urgent request.
He wanted me to investigate a trout stream restoration project north of Chisholm, Minn., that was undertaken by his former employer, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. He accused officials involved with the project of trespassing on private land, messing up the Dark River and cutting down someone else’s trees.
Holmbeck’s plea sounded like many that arrive in my inbox: someone wanting a journalist to help them redress an ancient grievance. All of this happened in 2007 or earlier. And I am loath to wade into the tangled politics of Minnesota fishing.
But something intrigued me about Holmbeck. Here’s a retired DNR ecologist who’s 67 and could just go fishing (in fact he was fishing last week, for walleye on Red Lake, though he did take time to answer the phone).
Since his retirement, Holmbeck has bombarded government agencies with record requests, written letters to the editor and demanded action from politicians, all because of an alleged trespass that wasn’t even on his land.
“People have told me, ‘You need to get a life,’ ” he said. Instead, “I’m not letting go.”
It all started when Holmbeck was still working at DNR doing environmental reviews of projects and permits. One of them was an agency effort to bring trout to the Dark River.
“We pretty much came to the conclusion that this was a bad project,” Holmbeck said. But he said his supervisors didn’t want to listen to him. He said the conflict persuaded him to retire from the agency in 2008, after 37 years.
He found out later that a property owner, Martin Lehto, had allowed the DNR to cross his land to cut some brush. But Lehto angrily revoked that access in 2007 after he found stumps in place of the white pines he had planned to use to build a new house.
Lehto realized later that the DNR had crossed his property two years earlier to remove boulders from the Dark River with a backhoe, which he also considers a trespass.
Enter Holmbeck. After retirement, he took up the cause of avenging Lehto’s losses. He started filing requests under federal and state public records laws.
I asked him how many. He sent me a spreadsheet showing 61 data requests, with the DNR, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, three other government agencies, the University of Minnesota and a contractor.
That has yielded dozens of documents and photos, many of which he sent me as PDFs attached to his e-mails. He credits the Forest Service for being attentive to his search for information.
So far he’s found evidence that points to confusion over the boundary between Superior National Forest and the Lehto property, but no proof of wrongdoing.
He has filed 23 requests with the DNR alone, and he said 12 are still pending.
Sheila Deyo, the DNR’s point person on data practices, said her agency stopped fulfilling requests after Holmbeck never picked up or looked at the records gathered for his 11th request. It’s too costly for the DNR to keep retrieving records if no one ever follows up, she said.
“We really worked with him to find what he was looking for,” Deyo said. “Some of the data just does not exist.”
Holmbeck called Deyo’s explanation a “red herring,” and said there’s nothing in the law that allows DNR to ignore additional requests. “There’s been a deliberate effort to cover this up,” he said.
On Friday, he filed another FOIA with the Forest Service.
The Dark River Trout Stream Restoration Project has so far produced large quantities of paper, but not much trout. Holmbeck’s quest may be its longest-lasting legacy, since the DNR has given up on its Dark River ambitions. Any reference to the project has been scrubbed from the DNR website.
Contact James Eli Shiffer at email@example.com or 612-673-4116.