Public shut out from Mille Lacs fisheries meetings
Supporting walleye fishing on Lake Mille Lacs involves countless work hours and dollars spent, both private and public. However, the government quota-setting process for the lake involves meetings that are closed to that same public. A recent att...
Supporting walleye fishing on Lake Mille Lacs involves countless work hours and dollars spent, both private and public.
However, the government quota-setting process for the lake involves meetings that are closed to that same public. A recent attempt by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to make the process more open to Minnesotans was met with denial by the American Indian groups that control fishing on the lake along with the state.
The DNR collaborates with tribal bands that gill net on the lake, the consequence of a 1990s U.S. Supreme Court decision affirming tribal rights to fish and hunt off-reservation in lands the Ojibwe ceded to the U.S. government in the 1800s. This 16-member coalition of DNR and tribal fisheries experts decide allowable harvest levels for the lake. The coalition is called the 1837 Ceded Territory Fisheries Committee, or the technical committee. The quotas set by the committee form the basis of the DNR's harvest slot limits for Mille Lacs - which length fish are allowed to be taken by anglers, and which aren't.
Under pressure from an angry public to increase transparency following the early closure of the summer walleye fishing season in August, the DNR created the Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Committee, made up of private citizens - resort operators, anglers, tourism board members. It decided to send people from the advisory committee to the technical committee meetings, to draw back the curtain on how the limits for Mille Lacs were set.
"The DNR will increase the transparency of the quota-setting process by inviting two advisory committee members to attend and observe fisheries technical committee meetings," the DNR's website on Mille Lacs said as of Wednesday.
However, the bands nixed the DNR's request to have advisory committee members present at the technical committee meeting Oct. 15, during which the committee determined how much walleye harvest to allow during the ice fishing season.
DNR Fisheries chief Don Pereira said the bands didn't want to have the two advisory committee members there because the bands felt their presence wouldn't be in line with the legal framework that initially set up the technical committee.
"Their interpretation of the protocol is that, that meeting is supposed to be either for technical people, or for official agents of either government," Pereira said.
Some advisory committee members were upset that their committee wasn't allowed to go.
"Some of them were concerned," Pereira said. "I don't think it's a universal concern, but some of them were. It's a basic trust issue there that I don't think is justified, because there isn't' anything deceitful being done at all. We're being pretty transparent about everything."
When the DNR initially brought the idea to the tribes, they said it would help assuage public suspicion.
"We just said it would alleviate these unnecessary concerns by some members of our public, if they were able to sit and observe the process that we go through in the tech committee meetings," Pereira said.
While the DNR withdrew its request to have advisory committee members at the Oct 15 meeting, Pereira said, the DNR is still in talks on the issue with the tribes.
In response to a data request under the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act, the DNR provided a list of regular technical committee members as well as the draft agenda and meeting packet for the Oct. 15 meeting.
However, a data practices officer for the DNR said the meeting was not voice recorded and that no meeting minutes were available.
The technical committee is made up of seven members from the state and nine from American Indian tribes. Five of the latter represent the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission.
A spokesperson for the commission denied an interview request for GLIFWC and technical committee member Neil Kmiecik.
"The closed meeting provision is tied to a court case," the spokesperson said. "It is not open to the public, and that's just the way it is. The tribes have no interest in changing it."
In an emailed statement, Susan Klapel, commissioner of natural resources for the Mille Lacs Band, said meetings of the technical committee - of which she is a regular member - should stay the way it is.
"The Fisheries Technical Committee is designed to facilitate co-management and allow for representatives of tribal nations and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to arrive at harvest regulations for Mille Lacs Lake that are based on sound science," Klapel said. "The current configuration of this committee allows for the free exchange of information between state and tribal biologists. We are not in favor of any changes that would inhibit the ability of the participants to focus on the biological factors impacting the lake."
The meetings are not entirely closed off to outsiders, however. The framework for the technical committee as set forth by the court is labeled "Protocol #1". There are two sentences at the end of the protocol under the heading "Public Information" that dictate the matter of open access to the public:
"The parties shall cooperate in making meeting reports and all analyses and technical data developed by or for the committee available to the public. As a professional courtesy, committee members shall notify each other before issuing press releases or other statements to the media."
In addition, each party can invite government representatives outside the committee to attend as observers, Pereira said. For example, the DNR has a "standard practice" of inviting Minnesota legislators to the meetings, he said. However, it appears it's up to the legislators themselves whether or not they follow through with the invitation.
"They don't always show up," Pereira said.
Although he isn't on the committee itself, Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, came to the Oct. 15 meeting, as well as a staffer for Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, Hackbarth said. Hackbarth and Tomassoni co-chaired the legislative working group on the Mille Lacs crisis, which ultimately broke down amid political bickering between it and the Dayton administration.
Hackbarth said he had been to "many" meetings of the much-older technical committee, but could not recall any members of the public ever attending.
"But, that's not the way it was set up," he said of allowing the public in. "It's been like that since the inception of the whole thing."
In Hackbarth's opinion, there should be more public interest in the technical committee's operations, and more access to the public, so Mille Lacs business owners, residents and other stakeholders can attend.
"Maybe they should have set it up different so those people could have been allowed to come," he said.
ZACH KAYSER may be reached at 218-855-5860 or Zach.Kayser@brainerddispatch.com . Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ZWKayser .