Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Investing in Big Rice Lake

Funding from the Outdoor Heritage Fund has been critical to many area projects

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Kudos to the Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Fund for the organization’s significant investment in the future of Big Rice Lake, as we report this week. Few lakes in northern St. Louis County have been as important historically to the sustenance of both people and wildlife. The once-spectacular wild rice crops that grew here drew hundreds of ricers and tens of thousands of ducks and geese annually to this spectacular 2,000-acre lake tucked away in the Superior National Forest.

It was an enormous natural resource and we hope it can be once again, thanks to the $845,000 that the Outdoor Heritage Fund has approved to undertake a planned restoration.

We recognize that the funding is no guarantee that the lake can be turned around. As officials from the Department of Natural Resources have acknowledged, it was their previous management efforts, which sought to stabilize water levels, that appear to have tipped the balance in favor of pickerel weed, thereby making the lake far less hospitable to wild rice.

Fortunately, DNR officials didn’t simply shrug and walk away from this important resource. Instead, they have spent the last several years developing and implementing potential solutions, which are finally beginning to show promise.

The recent grant from the Outdoor Heritage Fund will now allow the DNR to get the lake’s pickerel weed under control, allowing for the eventual return of wild rice.

The timing of this is critical. While it’s not entirely clear how long wild rice seed can remain viable, most seeds lose vigor the longer they sit in dormancy. We know that some of seed is still out there, buried in the sediments, and could germinate once favorable conditions return.

That’s key, since most rice lakes have their own unique strain, and Big Rice was famous for producing not just abundant rice, but some of the highest quality wild rice anywhere in the world.

Simply reseeding the lake with rice from elsewhere is a far-less desirable option. By taking aggressive steps now, it may still be possible to save the Big Rice Lake genotype for the future.

It’s a worthy project, designed to restore a natural resource that is iconic to the state’s outdoor heritage. It is investments such as this that have prompted us to reconsider the value of the Clean Water, Land, and Legacy Amendment, approved by the state’s voters in 2008. We opposed that amendment at the time, preferring to leave such investment decisions under the control of the state Legislature. But over the years, we’ve seen the benefits that have accrued to our region from passage of that amendment, and we recognize that most of those investments would have ended up on the chopping block in a Legislature too often consumed by other matters.

Minnesota voters showed that they truly care about the future of the state’s natural resources and want to see them protected for both current and future generations. The small addition to the state’s sales tax may have gone unnoticed by Minnesotans when making their purchases at a retailer, but the impact of those dollars in the development of trails, habitat, watershed protection, and so many other projects, has certainly been apparent. The prospect of restoring Big Rice Lake to its former value as one of the state’s premier wild rice lakes, is just one more example of the importance of this unique funding stream to the state’s outdoor heritage.

If this investment yields the benefits we all hope for, it will be a remarkable turnaround and prove, once again, that Minnesota’s voters made the right call in 2008.

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