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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Field hearing airs complaints on VNP access

David Colburn
Posted 5/23/24

REGIONAL- A recent congressional subcommittee field hearing in Hayward, Wis. provided a venue for an International Falls houseboat rental operator to air local concerns about actions taken by …

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Field hearing airs complaints on VNP access


REGIONAL- A recent congressional subcommittee field hearing in Hayward, Wis. provided a venue for an International Falls houseboat rental operator to air local concerns about actions taken by Voyageurs National Park that could restrict access to the park for visitors and businesses alike.
The meeting on Monday, May 13 was convened by the U.S. House Subcommittee on Federal Lands to look at “Improving Access and Opportunities for Hunting, fishing, and Outdoor Recreation on America’s Federal Lands.” The subcommittee chairman, Republican Rep. Tom Tiffany, represents Wisconsin’s Seventh District, where Hayward is located.
Joining Tiffany for the event was Minnesota’s Eighth District Rep. Pete Stauber and Georgia’s Tenth District freshman Rep. Mike Collins, both Republicans.
The partisan nature of the hearing became clear during Tiffany’s opening remarks.
“The public lands access that sustains the lifeblood of our communities is under attack,” Tiffany said. “Public lands in Wisconsin and across the nation are under threat from extreme preservationists that want to lock up lands, limit access, prevent responsible management, close roads and trails and shut down many of the activities Americans love participating in on our public lands. Since taking office, President Biden has been using tools like the Antiquities Act to lock up lands in pursuit of his radical “30 by 30” agenda, which is set a goal to preserve 30 percent of the land and water in the United States by 2030. For hunters and sportsmen, this radical agenda is unfolding in a death by a thousand cuts.”
Among the five witnesses invited to deliver prepared remarks was Tom Dougherty, owner of Rainy Lake Houseboats and president of the Voyageurs Country Houseboat Operators Association. Dougherty also serves on the board of directors for the Voyageur Country ATV Club.
“I am here today to speak on behalf of stakeholders surrounding Voyageurs gateway communities – advocating for local outfitting operators, fishing guide services, resort owners, houseboat operators, local government, visitors and locals alike,” Dougherty said. “We are faced with unnecessary barriers when accessing the vast waterways (of VNP).”
Dougherty contrasted access conditions when the park was formed 50 years ago to the present day.
“Fast forward 50 years, the National Park Service has enforced new water rights restrictions around more than 50 percent of the park,” he said. “We now fight for easy access to more than 218,000 acres of Voyageurs National Park, including one-third of that acreage which is water. Unrestricted water access is critical to our livelihood, local tourism economy, and necessary for an inclusive visitor experience.”
Dougherty echoed themes familiar across the North Country, beginning by re-asserting that when the park was formed, Minnesota did not cede the waters in the park to the federal government, and that the state retains jurisdiction over those waters, jurisdiction that should be reinforced by congressional action, he said.
Next, Dougherty targeted the park’s proposed Frozen Lake Surface Use Plan, a proposal released last year that received vigorous pushback from the public and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. It represents access restrictions that have been going on for years, Dougherty noted.
“There once was 100 miles of snowmobile trails on the Kabetogama peninsula – today there are only 18 miles of land trails,” Dougherty said. “Recently, the truck portage through Mukooda Lake was restricted to permit-only access making it no longer accessible by automobile and ATV. The route provided a safe passage around dangerous ice conditions. The public has long relied on access to the frozen lake surfaces for winter recreational activities. Access by all types of vehicles is crucial to providing opportunities, especially those with disabilities.”
“The economic impact on local operators has been detrimental, with reduced access limiting the scope of their operations and ultimately restricting access to the public,” he added.
Stauber asked Dougherty to expand upon the impact the park’s restrictions have had on the recreational economy.
“We have the gateway communities of Crane Lake, Ash River, Kabetogama, and International Falls, and when the park was first formed, we were promised an increase in visitors to the area,” Dougherty said. “We really haven’t seen that, although the visitorship is good and it’s solid. But it is important to the area communities. The number of resorts that are there is astronomical. Some of the resorts have been there for a number of years, and then some new ones have popped up along the way. To put a number on it, well, I’m not prepared to do that today. But I certainly could submit something in the next few days.”
Dougherty cited the new commercial use authorization application process as another hindrance on local operators and the area’s tourism economy.
“The proposed CUAs will limit public access by hindering the ability of businesses to operate effectively within Voyageurs,” he said. “The visitor experience is compromised as fewer services and recreational opportunities are available, especially for those with disabilities.”
Stauber asked Dougherty to describe how the CUA process has changed. Dougherty referred to the 2022 arrest and tasing of Ash River houseboat operator Justin Ebel by VNP law enforcement rangers in his response.
“The previous process was rather simple, it was just basically one paragraph,” Dougherty said. “Now we have several pages of stipulations, essentially is what they are. For instance, for the houseboat operators, they developed a list of stipulations due to a set of unfortunate circumstances that arose in 2022 where we had a lake operator actually get arrested for a disagreement with law enforcement. Out of that these stipulations were developed, and the stipulations are broad. We spent basically the entire winter negotiating with Superintendent (Bob) DeGross, who was accommodating. I think that most of the recommendations for the stipulations and things are coming from regional and possibly Washington.”
In addition to asking for congressional action to reinforce Minnesota’s water rights in the park, Dougherty called for a federal audit surrounding decision-making about Voyageurs’ water rights jurisdiction and CUA guidelines.
“We want to offer full access to our nation’s uniquely water-based Voyageurs National Park to all people,” Dougherty concluded.