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Effort to name St. Louis River a National Water Trail raises questions

A proposal to designate portions of the St. Louis River estuary as a National Water Trail system recently has caused waves in Duluth's angling and boating communities.

Spirit Mountain
A proposal to designate portions of the St. Louis River estuary a National Water Trail has sparked concern among some fishing and motorboating enthusiasts. However, supporters say that concern is unwarranted. (file photo / News Tribune)

A proposal to designate portions of the St. Louis River estuary as a National Water Trail system recently has caused waves in Duluth's angling and boating communities.That's largely because of misunderstandings about what's being proposed, said Hansi Johnson, director of recreational lands for the Minnesota Land Trust, who has been working on the project.

Russ Francisco, owner of Marine General, said one of the biggest concerns floating around was that motorized watercraft could lose access to parts of the river and that possibly other new boating restrictions could be put in place.

"We think the river belongs to everyone, and everyone ought to be able to use it. And they have been. Powerboaters and kayakers and canoers have been getting along on the river for years. It hasn't been a problem," he said.

Johnson met with anglers, including members of the Twin Ports Walleye Association, Tuesday night to dispel some of their concerns about the plan being developed.

"It certainly has no non-motorized aspect to it at all, as far as closing off access," he said.

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Charlie Stauduhar, owner of the Spirit Lake Marina, has heard the rumors about motorboats being pushed off the river in favor of a water trail for paddlers, too.

As someone who has attended several planning meetings for the water trail, Stauduhar has been quick to respond: "That isn't the case at all. It just isn't. That's not even part of the talk. This wouldn't give the federal government any jurisdiction over what happens on our river."

If the National Water Trail designation indeed were to discourage motorboat traffic on the St. Louis, Stauduhar noted that it would be detrimental to his own business.

"I would be the first in line opposing this kind of thing, if that was the case," he said. "It's already a designated state water trail. And this just kind of piggybacks on that."

As for the benefits of a federally recognized water trail system, Stauduhar said: "It just really opens up the possibilities of attracting new monies to create new and better ramps, include some camping sites along the river, and then it gives us some exposure, too, that we don't have now."

Lisa Luokkala, a project manager for the Duluth Parks and Recreation Department, agreed the designation could improve the city's odds of receiving technical and financial support for projects throughout the estuary.

"This enhances our ability to invest in the river long term," she said.

Dave Nelson, president of the Twin Ports Walleye Association, said he appreciated that Johnson was willing to meet with local anglers and answer their questions about the effort.

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"The biggest concern is that all user groups are being considered as they move forward with trying to achieve this designation - to make sure the boating and fishing communities are also represented," Nelson said.

Johnson said the effort is about improving access to the river, but he understands why people could have concluded a preference for one kind of activity versus another.

"It's helping us be more inclusive to more folks. It's not at the exclusion of anybody. It's just saying: We'd like to have more people come and enjoy this great watershed and estuary. With that said, the planning process certainly is focused on that paddler-based use, because that's where we're weak. But again it won't be at the exclusion of motorized use. So that, I think, is where people are possibly confused when they see the maps (developed as part of the plan)," he said.

In all, 18 National Water Trails have been established across the country, and Johnson said he knows of none where motorized watercraft are unwelcome. A segment of the Mississippi River between St. Cloud and Hastings has earned the designation, and it boasts some of the most coveted walleye fishing action in the state, according to Johnson, who said: "They're getting a ton of motorized and fishing use."

Johnson described the application and selection process for the National Water Trail system as highly selective, and said the city must enlist the support of various user group organizations, such as the Twin Ports Walleye Association and others.

"We really need letters of support for our application, and we can't do this without those folks. So we need to communicate with people and make sure they're onboard," he said.

Nelson said the Walleye Association will need more information and written assurances before it can offer its support for the effort, but said he is encouraged to now be part of the conversation.

"They're seeking our input, and there's still time for them to seek our input. We feel it's very important they get input from all the different user groups," he said.

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Johnson agreed that it's important to pull more people into the discussion.

"We did do some pretty broad outreach to pull people in early in the planning, but we had a sporadic response," he said, adding that many people seemed to think the project was geared solely to paddling enthusiasts.

Even though some groups have been late to enter the discussion, a plan and application for the St. Louis River estuary to be designated a National Water Trail system won't likely be ready until July, still leaving time for meaningful involvement, Johnson said.

"Now people are more interested and they're more engaged. So to me, that's a positive ... because now we can still get the right information out there, and we still have plenty of time to take their input and work it into the plan," he said.

 For more information on the proposed National Water Trail plan, click here .

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