Voyageurs National Park leaders are taking heat from area residents and from the state Department of Natural Resources over a policy proposal that would seriously restrict motorized vehicle travel on frozen lakes inside the park.

The proposed Frozen Lake Surface Access and Use Plan introduced recently by Park Superintendent Bob DeGross would end free-ranging access to ice fishing by trucks, cars, all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and other non-snowmobiles. Those machines and the fish houses they tow or carry would be constrained to a pair of proposed ice road corridors, one on Kabetogama Lake and the other on Rainy Lake.

The concept is being blasted by critics who contend the National Park Service has no business regulating access to Minnesota's public waters, even inside park boundaries. Their belief is at odds with a history of federal park service regulations that treat frozen lake surfaces as a continuation of land. DeGross said the whole idea of the Frozen Lake plan is to begin governing the operation of vehicles off of park roads in a way that's consistent with federal regulations. Unfettered motorized access for ice fishing predates the park's creation.

At a trio of civic engagement meetings last month, crowds criticized the early-stage proposal. Among the outspoken attendees was DNR Regional Director Shelly Patten, based in Grand Rapids. She said in an interview the state only ceded land, not water, to help establish Voyageurs in the mid-1970s.

"I consider this a major change,'' Patten said. "It would really restrict a lot of people. ... I just really hope they rethink this decision.''

DeGross stressed that the proposal is in its "very early'' stages. "My next step is to have more direct meetings with the DNR about the topic,'' he said.

The first public comment period is set to end on June 3. After that, the park will build a range of alternatives for further consideration. Still more reviews would follow for environmental assessment purposes before a final decision is made by the National Park Service. Additional public comment periods will be part of the process.

The preliminary proposal allows for continued broad access by snowmobiles in authorized areas, but trucks, cars and ATVs, including caterpillar-tracked vehicles and jumbo-sized "sherpas,'' would be limited to two ice roads that currently run for a combined 26 miles. Vehicle owners could plow spurs of up to 300 feet in length on either side of the ice road to place fish houses. Beyond those defined corridors, all ice shelters would have to be transported by snowmobile or non-motorized methods, according to the preliminary proposal.

Under existing conditions, visitors and resort owners can transport fish houses — including camper-style wheelhouses — to dispersed areas away from park-maintained ice roads. One of the issues, according to park officials, is that fish houses have evolved from homemade shanties into larger, professionally manufactured campers or wheelhouses that can be lowered onto the ice.

"This plan aims to define allowable use to minimize or avoid adverse impacts to visitor experience and natural resources,'' reads a Voyageurs-produced PowerPoint presentation. The potential resource considerations include water quality degradation, noise, fisheries impacts, wildlife, night skies and "viewshed impacts,'' according to the presentation.

DeGross said no one has "looked at the science'' yet, but the National Park Service is responsible for assessing potential resource impacts of any type of new equipment. Those considerations will be incorporated in the process of adopting a change, he said.

"We need to take a look at this," he said in an interview with the Star Tribune. "And part of that is we also need to present a range of reasonable alternatives. … We recognize it is controversial and deals with jurisdictional issues.''

Patten of the DNR said she didn't hear a single public comment in favor of the proposed change during last month's meetings. Attendance estimates at the meetings ranged from at least 200 people at one meeting to more than 230 for all three, including an online session. Winter usage of Voyageurs National Park is nominal compared to summer, but the park recorded 13,000 recreational visits from Jan. 1 through March 31 of 2022.

The DNR is aware of an increase in winter ATV use in the region. But the agency "doesn't see any issues'' with ATVs, cars and trucks dispersing on the ice for outdoor recreation, Patten said. It's always been "enter at your own risk," she said. "These are public waters, so they belong to the people of Minnesota.''

Professional fishing guide Billy Dougherty of Rainy Lake Houseboats said one of the many problems with the proposed restrictions on motorized vehicle use is that the park service can't always establish ice roads or sustain them through changing conditions of winter.

Like Patten, he believes the National Park Service would be overstepping its authority by governing where park visitors and resort owners can and can't go with their ice fishing equipment, regardless of size or weight.

"The state has never given up any jurisdiction on the water,'' Dougherty said. "The state of Minnesota wants people in the outdoors. That's a base thing. They want our people to be outdoors.''

Katy Ebel, whose family runs a houseboat business in Voyageurs, said the proposed crackdown on non-snowmobiles is just another obstacle for the public to overcome in order to enjoy the 218,000-acre park. As it is, you need a boat or airplane to view or experience the lakes that cover more than a third of the park. Besides all of Kabetogama Lake, Voyageurs incorporates parts of Rainy, Namakan Lake and Sand Point Lake.

"The park doesn't have a huge presence in the ice fishing industry,'' Ebel said. "Are they thinking we are going to be overrun by ice fishing and tournaments? History says that's not where we are going.''

Ebel said area residents and local business owners have been on edge since Voyageurs introduced the regulation to restrict access to non-snowmobilers. "You wonder what else is coming down the pike," she said, "as to what they are going to restrict."