By Erika R.L. Rivers
Two rugged dirt roads and a rock-strewn stretch of creek lead to Bird's Eye Lake, a natural oasis for local paddlers and anglers in the rapidly developing lake country of Itasca County. This small lake has no cabins or other buildings on its shores. The shallow creek connects it to nearby Sand Lake, which has several houses on its shoreline. The popular walleye waters of Lake Winnibigoshish lie 10 miles to the southwest.
In 1998 a wave of development almost reached Bird's Eye Lake. A housing developer laid plans to build a subdivision on 180 acres that included northern hardwoods, white cedar, aspen, and balsam fir and nearly three-quarters of a mile of shoreline. When the Steward brothers caught wind of the plan in the winter of 1998, the developer had already secured a purchase agreement for one lot and put in an access road.
Online Extras:Hear Dan Steward's story of a wolf encounter on Bird's Eye Lake
The four brothers, who had vacationed at their family cabin on Sand Lake since the 1960s, knew Bird's Eye well. In pursuit of bass at sunrise, they had often rowed their 16-foot cedar-strip boat through the creek to the small lake. Dan Steward, who works for the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, and John Steward, an acquisition and development coordinator for the Department of Natural Resources, unofficially carried news of the proposed subdivision to the Sand Lake Association. In turn, that group called an emergency meeting with the Leech Lake Area Watershed Foundation -- a much larger group with an impressive record of successful shoreline conservation.
"Each project has its own unique story," says Ted Mellby, co-founder and past chair of the nonprofit foundation. Mellby, a retired attorney and longtime lake-property owner, started the group in 1997 with other local conservationists who saw the need for a foundation that could protect wild shorelines from the rampant lakeshore development occurring in the Leech Lake watershed during the 1990s.
Where better to test new methods for preserving water quality in Minnesota lakes than the famed north-central lake country?
That's the idea behind the North Central Lakes Collaborative, part of the governor's Clean Water Initiative. Organized in 2004 the collaborative generates and tests innovative strategies for lake conservation in Aitkin, Cass, Crow Wing, Hubbard, and Itasca counties. Successful strategies may be used statewide.
"We were set up as a kind of lakes conservation think tank," says Michael Duval, lakes management coordinator for DNR Fisheries.
In addition to the DNR, the collaborative includes lake associations, conservation groups, state agencies, and government from the five north-central counties, which combined hold about 21 percent of the state's lakes.
Among its most promising products, the collaborative has produced a set of alternative shoreland management standards. When seeking better protection for lakes and water quality, counties may choose to use these alternatives instead of their current ordinances. For example, the alternative standards include increased setbacks from shorelines for houses and other buildings, clustered docks, and various zoning classifications for a single lake -- so vegetation-rich bays may be protected as natural areas, while other areas may be zoned for general development.
So far, four counties in the collaborative have incorporated some alternative standards into their zoning ordinances. Also, nine counties in western Minnesota have chosen to use some of the stricter alternatives in their planning and zoning. Learn more about alternative standards and the lakes collaborative.
Bird's Eye Lake actually sits just beyond the Leech Lake watershed boundary. But Mellby says the case for its conservation was so compelling the foundation couldn't help but get involved.
"Often it takes years for government transactions to close, and private landowners just can't wait that long," says Mellby, now chair of the foundation's conservation committee.
The foundation used its expertise to help facilitate the sale of the entire parcel to local environmental philanthropists Carl and Elizabeth Bergquist. The couple reached a verbal agreement with the developer on the sale within six months.
The Bergquists donated a conservation easement on the property to the Minnesota Land Trust in 2003. The easement limits development, management, and recreational activities to protect the land and water from erosion, to preserve fish and wildlife habitat, and to maintain the scenic characteristics of the site in perpetuity.
In 2006 the Bergquists donated the property to the Leech Lake Area Watershed Foundation. Now the DNR is negotiating with the foundation to purchase and manage it as an aquatic management area. Just as wildlife management areas protect critical habitat for wildlife, AMAs protect critical shoreland habitat and provide a nonmotorized area for anglers and paddlers. Since the state Legislature created the AMA program in 1992, more than 477 miles of shoreland have been protected as AMAs across Minnesota. The DNR has set a goal in its Strategic Conservation Agenda for preserving an additional five miles of lakeshore habitat in AMAs each year for the next six years.
The foundation will use money from the sale of the Bird's Eye shoreland to fund future conservation projects. As shoreline development marches north, Minnesota has fewer lakes with undeveloped shorelines, according to Chris Kavanaugh, the DNR Fisheries supervisor overseeing the establishment of an AMA on Bird's Eye Lake.
"Protecting this land and shoreline as an AMA will guarantee future generations can enjoy the quality resources in and around Bird's Eye Lake," he says. "Without the Bergquists' generosity, this treasure could have been lost forever."