by CHRIS ROGERS
Will Minnesota boaters and visitors be forced to take an online quiz before they hit the water this summer? Will the state of Minnesota backtrack on plans to prevent the spread of invasive species like zebra mussels? After public backlash this winter, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) delayed plans to require boaters to complete an online quiz on aquatic invasive species (AIS) prevention rules — rules like cleaning off boats and draining ballasts — and pay for a new boat trailer decal showing that they completed the quiz and know the rules. Various bills are currently being considered by the state legislature that would strengthen that requirement and others that would abolish it. Meanwhile, some legislators and DNR leaders are also working on potential compromises.
The quiz and trailer decal requirement was part of law passed in 2012, which by law, was slated to be implemented on July 1 this summer. However, after negative public feedback, DNR officials decided to postpone the implementation of the law and wait for the legislature to tell them what to do.
No less than three bills in the House of Representatives propose repealing the trailer decal requirement all together. Representative Steve Drazkowski, who represents Goodview, northern Winona County, and parts of Wabasha and Goodhue counties, authored two identical bills that would do that and a rural Anoka County republican authored a third. "We've got multiple efforts going here to try to change a policy where the government has gone overboard," Drazkowski said.
Conversely, representative Mark Uglem, of Champlin, Anoka, and Coon Rapids, authored bills that establish a $25 fine if boaters do not have the trailer decal, and would double the fine for launching boats infested with invasive species. Under the current law, DNR officers can only give warnings to boaters that do not have the decal. No one likes fines, but invasive species like milfoil and zebra mussels will cost Minnesotans far more if we do not stop them, Uglem said.
In an interview this week, Drazkowski said that he hoped the House of Representatives Environment and Natural Resources Committee would include legislation repealing the decal requirement as part of an omnibus bill addressing many different issues. "The people who use our natural resources are just becoming overburdened with all of the regulations we are placing on them," Drazkowski said. "This is regulation gone overboard."
When asked how important it is to stop the spread of aquatic invasive species, Drazkowski said that it depends on where one lives. In the north woods lake country, where species like the zebra mussel have not yet spread, it is a pressing and important issue, he said. "For us in our area, right now, other than the asian carp, it's really not a concern," he said. "We've seen the zebra mussels come and spike in Mississippi, and Mother Nature has brought them down to a level that's manageable."
While some senators want to preserve the trailer decal requirement as it was written in 2012, Uglem, too, said he does not support the existing rule. "We're working right now with the DNR to come up with something a lot more palatable and easier for people to comply with," he explained.
One idea Uglem and DNR leaders developed is to add information explaining the AIS prevention rules to boater registration paperwork and out-of-state fishing licenses. People would be required to sign a statement saying that they had read and understand the rules.
"We do not support repealing the program," said DNR Assistant Commissioner Bob Meier. "There are still a lot of people out there who have no idea or are willfully violating the aquatic invasive species laws." Meier stated that close to 20 percent of boaters stopped at AIS checkpoints were in violation of AIS prevention laws. He continued, "We need to make sure that people know the law and are following it when they go to zebra infested waters. Once waters get infested with zebra mussels we don't know of any way to clean that up.… As much as people think it might be a problem, or an inconvenience to do something, it's a catastrophe once some of these waters gets infested with zebra mussels."
Meier said that he was working on several alternatives to the current rule for legislators to consider. How will it all be resolved? "It all depends on how the session goes," Meier said. "If you know anything about the capital, a lot gets done at the very end."
Drazkowski indicated he might support a compromise like the boater registration idea, or other educational campaigns. "The government should educate, not generate extra penalties," he said.
Drazkowski has also authored a bill that would cut $20 million in funding for counties to develop anti-AIS programs. The funding for county programs is split among counties across the state based on the number of boat launches and boat launch parking spaces they have. Winona County gave its $119,000 allotment to the Winona County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) this winter, to develop programs to fight aquatic invasive species in upland waterways. At the time, those programs were still in development.
Drazkowski stated that some counties did not even know they were going to get the AIS funding when it showed up in the mail and had to ask the state what it was for. "A pile of money is being thrown at an issue," he said. Minnesota needs a more targeted approach to stopping the spread of aquatic invasive species, he added.
Keep reading the Winona Post for more on this story.