New Visions for Lakeshores
Near-shore fish and wildlife habitat is disappearing quickly as development booms.
By Mary Hoff
Sand beach and a big, grassy lawn. That's what the other folks had, and when Connie Fortin and Roman Rowan bought a home on Schmidt Lake in Plymouth 13 years ago, that's what they figured they should put in too. So they did.
Then the couple started hearing about the value of native vegetation. They learned that plants can be a lake's best friend, helping to protect water quality and providing food and shelter for other living things. So they started leaving things alone at the water's edge.
"I just let the plants come back through the sand," Fortin says. Sedges began to fill in the open spaces. Willows and red-osier dogwood set down roots, adding texture and stability to the site. Cattails and rushes helped soften the look of the shoreline.
The lawn soon followed suit. Fortin replaced the grass with coneflowers, wild onions, hyssop, and other native plants. And she couldn't be happier with the results. "If you walk down there no matter what time, you'll see something: bees, dragonflies, or shorebirds," she says. "There's always something happening."
Lee and Carolyn Halbur of Maple Grove had a similar epiphany back in 1999. They had kept their lawn on Fish Lake neatly mowed, and made sure no aquatic plants crowded the shoreline. But after attending a lakescaping workshop put on by the Department of Natural Resources, they too changed their view of lakeshore beauty.
"It took only a day to realize that our previous idea of beauty was hurting our lake," Carolyn Halbur says. "In fact, we were literally loving it to death."
The Halburs began plotting a new life for their lakeshore and received DNR assistance as a shoreland restoration demonstration site. They planted deep-rooted native plants, shrubs, and trees on the land, and bulrushes and water-lilies in the water. A section of lawn that had been plagued by geese was replaced by low-maintenance native plants.
"We're protecting the lake. We have fewer geese. We have less erosion. We've decreased our work," says Halbur. "Our naturalized shoreline has an ever-changing display of color, drawing butterflies, songbirds, and wildlife like never before. And each year it gets even more beautiful."
Jane and Duane Brevik own 225 feet of sheltered shore along Little Mantrap Lake near Park Rapids. They mow around the cabin, but closer to the lake, they have always let nature set the stage.
"We just like natural," Jane Brevik says. "We created paths but left everything wild. The only thing we got rid of was maybe a little brush." One path leads to a fire pit, another to the lake. "The forest floor is just beautiful, full of ferns and wildflowers," she says. "We never had any erosion problems."
Down by the water, aquatic plants are allowed to stand their ground between the shore and the diving raft. Even though she wades through them on her way out for a swim, Brevik says it's worth it.
"There's a million fish--sunfish, northern pike, bass," she says. "It's most definitely good for the environment. The less you do, the better off you are."
Special Needs of Lake Life
Unfortunately, over the years, thousands of Minnesota property owners have turned undeveloped shoreland into mowed lawns and sand beaches. Today, with lakeshores being developed as never before, more and more people are following in their footsteps. As they do, they--often unwittingly--take a little something from all of us. Lakes are Minnesotans' pride and joy. And whenever someone removes native vegetation, the lake pays the price.
"It has consequences to fish. It has consequences to wildlife, to amphibians, ducks, herons," says DNR research scientist Paul Radomski, who has been studying aquatic plants on Minnesota lakes for nearly a decade. "We're changing the character of our shoreline."
Simply put, a lakeshore's native vegetation is critical to the health of the lake. On land, native vegetation shelters a variety of living things, from frogs to mink. It also helps keep the water clean: A natural area will absorb 90 percent of the rain that falls on it, while less permeable surfaces such as pavement and even lawns send much of the precipitation that hits them into the lake. This runoff carries silt, which clouds the water; nutrients such as phosphorus, which speed algae growth and deplete oxygen; and chemicals, which contaminate natural habitat.
Bulrushes, cattails, water-lilies, horsetail, and other forms of aquatic vegetation are as valuable as shoreland plants. They too filter nutrients from runoff, reducing algal blooms. They create oxygen needed by fish, invertebrates, and other water life. They intercept waves and wakes, protecting the shore from erosion. And they help keep the water clear by holding sediments in place.
"They're the heart and lungs and kidneys of the lake," says Robert Ekstrom, DNR regional aquatic habitat specialist in Bemidji.
Not to mention the nursery and pantry. Northern pike lay their eggs on near-shore aquatic plants. Loons nest among the grasses and reeds. Mink frogs and green frogs lay their eggs on bulrushes and lily pads. Snails and insect larvae cling to submerged vegetation, eating algae and being eaten in turn by bluegills and other fish. Canvasbacks and other diving ducks forage on wild celery and bushy pondweed.
Though anglers might get cranky at submerged vegetation when it snags their lures, underwater plants keep fish populations healthy. In his studies of lake life, Radomski found that lakes with higher occurrence of some types of aquatic vegetation also tended to have more bluegills, pumpkinseeds, and northern pike. Other research has shown black crappies prefer to nest along un-developed stretches of shore.
If shoreland vegetation is valuable, you'd never know by how we treat it. Just about every person who buys lake property, Ekstrom says, ends up altering it to the detriment of the shoreland ecosystem.
"Almost everybody who lives near the water is going to want a dock, and many also want a swimming area and other areas to store their water toys, and it creates quite a footprint on the lake," Ekstrom says. "Nowadays, with more money and more leisure time, it's an even bigger footprint."
On shore, as well as in the water, manicure mania tends to prevail. With chain saws and rakes, herbicides and hauled-in sand, landowners recast nature's perfect shoreline into their image of an ideal playground.
"Minnesotans grew up feeling they weren't good people if they didn't keep their grass mowed, keep plants [under control] in the beach areas," Ekstrom says. "When the number of people on the lake was small, it didn't really matter. But now it's turning into a huge problem."
That's because Minnesota has been undergoing a lakeshore development boom like never before. Using DNR Forestry aerial photos taken every 10 years or so since 1939, Radomski looked at changes along 100 randomly selected lakes in north--central Minnesota. Between 1960 and 2003, he found a 174 percent increase in median dock sites per mile on general development lakes (mainly large fishing lakes), and a 465 percent increase on recreational development lakes (mainly medium-sized lakes).
The nature of the housing associated with that growth is noteworthy as well. As baby boomers belly up to retirement, rustic cabins and natural shorelines are giving way to large, custom-built dream homes with country-estate lawns and bare waters.
The consequences of altered lakescapes are sobering. Radomski found that as the number of docks increased, the percent of aquatic vegetation cover declined.
"It was just eye-opening to me as far as how much the landscape has changed, particularly the fish and wildlife habitat, that near-shore habitat," Radomski says. "It was quite a remarkable thing for some lakes, quite a reduction in plants."
In a second study, Radomski used aerial photos to compare vegetation along developed and undeveloped stretches of shoreline on 44 lakes. He found that developed shorelines had on average 66 percent less aquatic vegetation than undeveloped ones. All told, he estimates that about 20 percent of the emergent plants (those such as cattails and bulrushes that grow above the water surface) and floating-leaf vegetation in the state's clear sunfish-walleye lakes have been lost to development. And he suspects things will only get worse.
"The best home sites were selected and developed [already]," he says. "Now there's a lot of development in fringe areas, typically more wet soils and shallower bays, which are the places where you have more sensitive fish and wildlife habitat." If current trends continue, Radomski predicts, we could lose close to half of our emergent and floating-leaf plants on key lakes to development within a decade.
Key to Stewardship
What can we do to protect shoreland vegetation?
Counties and cities already set some limits on development on the land side of the lakeshore, based on standards established by the DNR. Those limits are tending to get tougher as building booms and awareness grows of the role native plants play in keeping lakes healthy. The DNR also regulates vegetation-clearing activities in the state's protected waters. (See Everyone's Aquatic Plants, below.)
But government must do a balancing act between protecting individual rights and conserving public resources. Common law gives lakeshore property owners reasonable access to the lake. Consequently, DNR issues permits to some 10,500 landowners each year to remove aquatic plants--and people continue to cut, pull, and poison.
What's needed, many agree, is a better understanding and appreciation of the value of shoreland vegetation so landowners make good choices on their own.
"It's changing people's attitudes and perceptions," says Paula West, executive director of the Minnesota Lakes Association. "They just don't understand the consequences, and they aren't aware of the alternatives."
In a 2004 study commissioned by the DNR, University of Minnesota researchers Michelle Payton and David Fulton surveyed more than 5,500 lake property owners. They found that more than 40 percent of those who reported having aquatic plants on their lakefront also reported clearing some of them for swimming, boat access, or aesthetics. Even though most believed aquatic plants were good for fish, wildlife, or ecosystems, only a slight majority viewed them as valuable or deserving protection.
"Most people don't understand the fragile nature of the plant community of the lakeshore," says Ekstrom.
One way he and other DNR aquatic habitat specialists are working to change that is by visiting and talking with lakeshore owners who request permits to take out aquatic vegetation. "When you explain the consequences of removing the plants they want to remove, people almost always reduce what they perceive the need to be," Ekstrom says.
DNR and other agencies are also helping landowners restore already-altered lands. DNR's Shoreland Habitat Restoration Grant Program provides financial and technical assistance to public and private lakeshore landowners who want to restore their shores. Since the program began in 1998, it has helped revegetate more than 50,000 feet of shore, providing demonstration sites of healthy native shorelines around the state. Grants applications for this program are accepted from May 15 to Sept. 15, with grant dollars being awarded to successful applicants the following July. For more information, see Shoreland Habitat Restoration Grant Program or contact the DNR Information Center or call toll-free 1-888-646-6367 or 651-296-6157.
The DNR provides additional education and assistance with funding from the Legislative Commission on Minnesota Resources. The Division of Ecological Resources has sponsored workshops that have reached numerous lakeshore residents and others and has produced a book and CD-ROM to help lakeside landowners return their shores to a more natural state (see Selected Resources, below). The DNR Web site also offers a lot of information about Shoreland management.
The Shoreland Education Program, a cooperative effort of University of Minnesota Extension Service, Sea Grant, and the Water Resources Center, helps Minnesota landowners see the link between how they care for their land and how their land cares for the lake. Eleanor Burkett, regional extension educator at Brainerd, has been working with the program since 2000.
"There are plenty of people who are new to shoreland property ownership [who need to understand] the impacts their activities can have on a lake and learn about the things they can do to be good lake stewards," she says.
Lake associations are increasingly touting the value of vegetation, says West. Some even buy native plants in bulk and offer them to members to plant on their property.
A lot of people are catching on to the idea of natural shorelands, either re-establishing them or leaving their shore natural and aquatic plants intact," she says. "They're beginning to understand that each property owner is a mini lake manager, and that their individual shoreland management decisions can make a big difference in the quality of the lake when added cumulatively to the same decisions by other property owners."
Two years ago, Fortin's next-door neighbors on Schmidt Lake stopped pulling plants out of their sand beach. Last year, another homeowner added back emergent plants.
"I can see people are starting to think differently," she says.
Mary Hoff is a freelance science writer from Stillwater.