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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Voyageurs National Park

Park service should work with local businesses as partners, not opponents


In a perfect world the National Park Service and the businesses that serve users of Voyageurs National Park would work as partners with the goal of making the experience of park users the best that it can be. Sadly, we seem to be a long way from that perfect world these days.
We understand that the park service has a mandate to preserve the park environment, and that such a directive sometimes requires regulations that might rub a few folks the wrong way. Yet few people have as strong an interest in preserving Voyageurs as the business owners who rely on the park and its pristine character for their livelihood. Virtually every one of them would be just fine complying with regulations that truly protect the park environment.
Unfortunately, much of what we’ve seen from the park service in recent years has been senseless regulation with no apparent benefit to the natural surroundings. That, combined with a troubling trend toward overly aggressive enforcement of increasingly onerous regulations within the park, has seriously strained relations between local business owners and park managers.
Since this newspaper began covering Voyageurs National Park 35 years ago, we have regularly defended the park service against critics when we thought federal officials were right. Like the many businesses that serve users of the park, we want to see Voyageurs thrive. Yet it can’t do so if it develops the reputation as an unfriendly place, that implements regulations that serve only to inconvenience users and area business owners and that are enforced with the kind of take-no-prisoners attitude that led to the shameful and unjust tasing of business owner Justin Ebel in 2022. While park service officials seemed willing to bury their heads in the sand over that incident, it still rankles many in the area and we share that concern. As any engaged reader of this newspaper has learned over the years, there are few things that will attract the ire of our editorial page faster than an obvious abuse of government authority, which Mr. Ebel’s tasing represented in spades. Government should be there to serve, not to bully or abuse.
Nor should it be there to add red tape and expense for businesses that serve park users. The park service proposal to discontinue allowing businesses that operate in the park to “bundle” their services under a single permit, is so dumb it’s practically a caricature of overwrought bureaucracy. How does forcing local businesses to take out multiple permits and pay multiple fees help the environment or the experience for park users? It’s simply maddening. As a largely water-based park, the access provided by local businesses, be they fishing guides, boat tour operators, or houseboat rental operations, is critical to fulfilling the economic promise that park promoters touted when pushing for the creation of Voyageurs. Without these businesses, much of the public would have little means of accessing the park’s interior and interest in the park would decline markedly. The park service should recognize the value that local businesses bring to the park and do what they can to encourage them rather than exhibit what looks to many like disdain.
Sadly, the public doesn’t seem to be treated with much more consideration. The park service’s ridiculous proposal to heavily regulate the use of the park’s frozen lake surfaces is an example of one-size-fits-all thinking that will significantly impact the ability of many people to enjoy the park in winter. The regulation, as proposed, would sharply limit the use of ATVs or four-wheel drive vehicles outside of limited corridors. Allowing snowmobiles free reign while heavily restricting the use of ATVs or four-wheel trucks, makes no sense. We understand that ATVs can cause significant damage to the landscape, which is why they are justifiably prohibited in most national parks, just as they are in state parks in Minnesota. Yet, vehicles on frozen lakes don’t do that kind of damage. When the ice melts in the spring, the trails left by vehicles simply melt away.
The state of Minnesota has a role to play here. The Department of Natural Resources has questioned the park service’s right to regulate the use of vehicles on frozen lake surfaces in the park, noting that the state never ceded jurisdiction over the public waters in the park. As we reported last week, local businesses around Voyageurs have recently organized to urge state action to protect the rights of the public to use frozen lake surfaces to travel and fish as they would virtually anywhere else in the state. The DNR, the governor, or other state officials should make it clear that they’re willing to defend, in court if necessary, the rights of Minnesotans and others to travel and fish on frozen lakes in the park, as they are able. It’s time to start pushing back on a park service that appears increasingly out of control.