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Johnson campaigns by Mille Lacs Lake, wades into decades-long issues

GOP hopeful Jeff Johnson is the party-endorsed candidate for governor. During a speech Friday, July 27, he characterized the current state of Mille Lacs Lake as one of government overstep and abuse of power in people's lives. Gabriel Lagarde / Forum News Service 1 / 3
First enacted about 1999, the co-management of Mille Lacs Lake is a joint venture between the state of Minnesota and a coalition of Ojibwe groups. It's a poor deal that favors tribal authorities, its detractors contend, and its killing lake businesses in the process. Gabriel Lagarde / Brainerd Dispatch2 / 3
Attendees gather by the shores of Mille Lacs Lake Friday, July 27, to offer their support for Republican governor candidate Jeff Johnson. The No. 1 issue of the evening: co-management of the lake and its effects on the local economy. Gabriel Lagarde / Forum News Service3 / 3

ISLE, Minn.—Gubernatorial hopeful Jeff Johnson may have his eyes fixed on 2018, but if a stop by Mille Lacs Lake is any indication, he'll have to keep an eye on 1999 if he's elected.

That's the year the Supreme Court, in a split 5-4 ruling, upheld an 1837 treaty recognizing Ojibwe rights to hunt, fish and gather under their own rules. While the treaty covers a swath of traditional Ojibwe territories in Minnesota and Wisconsin, Mille Lacs Lake has remained a focal point—particularly since state and tribal authorities agreed to co-manage its resources.

And so, in the shade of McQuoid's Inn by the lakeshore Friday, July 27, Johnson tapped into a bitter feud that saw its beginnings in what could have been a resolution. Gathered before him was an audience of supporters, many of them disgruntled property owners who said they got a raw deal back in 1999 and they've been paying the price ever since.

"Co-management, as we see it now, is not working. It has created a dysfunction and a distrust that is not acceptable to me as your governor," Johnson told them. "My belief is that we have to change how this lake is managed in a way that benefits everyone—that means the tribes, that means the business owners, that means the sportsmen and the sportswomen that live in this area."

Linda Eno, owner of Twin Pines Resort, spoke critically of decision-makers at the time: First, for simply capitulating to tribal demands without pushing for a fair deal; second, for not including a clause holding the co-management system accountable and enabling the state to renegotiate if it proved ineffective.

Because the basis for co-management of the lake lies in a court ruling, it will be virtually impossible to change, Eno noted, short of arguing the issue in court again—though, that won't help businesses in the meantime. While government agencies set and reset regulations that are often arbitrary, sometimes unreasonable, the area's tourism industry takes a significant hit, she said.

"There's over 60 businesses gone around the lake (since 1999)—eight just in my 2 miles of the lake on the west side," Eno said. "We have no workers because there are no businesses and no thriving economy. ... We know the economy sucks. We know the ice cream guy suffers, we know the sub sandwich guy suffers, it trickles down. We know the schools are suffering. We know the churches are suffering."

This, Eno, Johnson and other attendees said, resulted from a misuse of government authority—first manifested in 1999 when the co-management system was established favoring the tribal communities over property owners; then repeatedly through the years with draconian regulations for fishing allotments, catch-and-release restrictions, live bait bans and other bureaucratic oversteps gradually suffocating businesses on the lake, one by one.

"Our DNR (Minnesota Department of Natural Resources) will brag, 'Oh, we've done a great job managing this lake,'" Eno said. "In whose world? You managed it to closure, under your watch. What is wrong with you people?"

Johnson said it represents another example of a state government that has grown increasingly ideological and oppressive over time—forgetting, he said, its role isn't to control or dictate policy, but to uphold the wishes of everyday Minnesotans.

"We have seen, I would argue, an out-of-control trend the last 15, 20 or so years where government is taking too much, and it's spending too much, and it's doing too much and it has way too much influence over our daily lives," Johnson told the assembled group of supporters. "We are going to rein in the DNR, the MPCA (Minnesota Pollution Control Agency) and the Department of Education and every other bureaucracy that does not understand their sole purpose is not to control us, it's to serve us."

Johnson said he plans to replace the leaders of the DNR with outside candidates—people, he noted, who do not have an overt political agenda, but the right qualities to create a culture that's more service-minded and in service to Minnesota as a whole over individual groups.

In addition, Johnson said he would institute a continually revolving audit of state agencies—with particular pertinence to Mille Lacs Lake, this would include the DNR, as well as the co-management arrangement currently in place.

Johnson said it would also be in the best interest of the lake community to reconfigure and realign how the DNR collects and assesses data—a data system criticized by attendees, who said the agency operates with faulty protocols and deals in inaccurate fishing numbers.

The Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Committee would also be redesigned and expanded to include a diverse group of stakeholders, Johnson said, with the long-term intention of maintaining the health and well-being of the lake.

These initiatives represent realistic and tangible changes he can make if he's elected to governor—instead a lengthy court battle, Johnson noted, that would get tangled in the notion of tribal sovereignty and precedents going back nearly two centuries.

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