Thursday, February 2nd, 2023
Thursday, February 2nd, 2023

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The ‘lakes’ area: Can we grow more wisely?

By Tim
Spielman
Associate Editor

Brainerd, Minn. — When it comes to population growth in the
state of Minnesota, the ’90s definitely were roaring. The
population grew by more than half a million during the decade.
Conservationists now are monitoring the effects of more newcomers
on the environment, and how the environmentally recluse might learn
to better care for the natural resources they claim to enjoy.

Outside the Twin Cities metro “donut,” by far the most human
growth has been absorbed by the “lakes” region of Minnesota,
including the counties of Cass, Aitkin, Hubbard, Itasca, and Crow
Wing, according to Martha McMurry, of the Minnesota State
Demographic Center. She, along with a host of others, addressed a
group of environmental advocates and outdoors writers at a
gathering last week in Brainerd, the city at the heart of lakes
region growth.

“During the 1990s, we had the biggest gain ever in population
growth,” McMurry said. “From 2000 to 2004 … we’re still growing at
a pretty good clip.”

The current population in the state is just over 5 million.

Most of those “new” folks are migrating to the area from other
parts of the state, as well as from other states and countries, she
said. Data also show that two age groups – 55-64 and 25-44 –
constitute the majority of those moving to lake country. And
they’re building few seasonal residences; most are constructing
“cabins” that can be used year-round.

“People don’t bother building little shacks that they’re only
going to use in the summer, anymore,” McMurry said. Currently,
housing in the lakes counties studied still is less expensive than
metro housing. But, like metro housing, it’s increasing in price.
Further, those migrating north are “higher-income, married
couples,” she said. Besides the full-time homes, Brainerd’s
summertime population is said to triple at times.

Local municipalities don’t mind the added tax dollars, new
homes, and big spenders. But local conservationists question if the
development – and the manner in which some development occurs – is
damaging the very things that drew people to the area in the first
place.

“It’s not so much growth, but the way we’re consuming land,”
said Phil Hunsicker, of 1000 Friends of Minnesota, a group that
supports the concept of “smart growth.”

“We reaching farther out than what the population demands,” he
said.

Some hunters and fishermen are noticing the effects of an
increasing population in areas once dominated by the wild
species.

Shawn Perich, an organizer of the conference, book author, and a
columnist for Outdoor News, said long-time outdoors people are
beginning to see change.

“Virtually everyone who hunts and fishes, regardless of age, can
tell stories about the duck flights that used to be, the grouse
cover that is now a golf course, the once-wild lake now crowded
with condos and the ‘back forty’ that’s now a subdivision,” said
Perich, a resident of Hovland along Lake Superior’s North Shore,
which, he said, attracts refugees and retirees from metro
areas.

The development in wild areas, much of it done without planning,
he said, has affected nearly all species – including ducks – to
varying degrees.

“Minnesota is just a fly-over state from a duck’s point of
view,” he said.

Part of the problem, according to Mike Duval, DNR lakes
management coordinator, is “fragmentation,” which in its simplest
form, means smaller habitat patches. And, “the larger the habitat
patch, the more species present,” he said. Generally, a greater
number of species indicates an ecosystem in better health.

But development has led to a decline in tree canopy and shrub
cover in several areas. “Predictably, there’s been an animal
response to that as well,” Duval said. The same concept applies to
aquatic species. If the vegetation is cut for navigational
channels, or beaches, the number of fish species present declines,
studies have shown.

“Fish need more than just water in order to survive,” Duval
said.

Another issue that’s growing in prominence and complexity is
public access (primarily for hunting) to large tracts of private
land, Duval said. Recent changes in law have made it more practical
for owners of large plots of land (i.e. paper companies) to lease
land.

What to do? The answer will vary, depending on which
organization you ask. Some say it’s a matter of controlling
population growth. Others say it is the population, no matter the
size, making wise decisions regarding the environment.

Right now, Hunsicker said, sprawl is a losing proposition, for
the local municipality and for the environment.

“Sprawl is not cost-effective,” he said. “It costs more to
provide infrastructure than the tax revenue that’s received.”

Hunsicker said the federal Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention has added urban sprawl to the list of public health
concerns because of sprawl’s link to obesity, asthma, and diabetes.
Why? Newer communities often lack sidewalks, which discourages
people from walking, Hunsicker said. Diabetes is linked to
obesity.

The group 1000 Friends encourages development that uses existing
infrastructure, and provides pedestrian-friendly services (bike
trails, sidewalks), and that farmland and open space be protected
to provide open, or “green space.”

Don Hickman, of the Initiative Foundation (a descendant of the
McKnight Foundation), said IF works with several programs that help
retain the integrity of wild lands. The organization has focused on
the Brainerd area, because since 1990, the region has grown at a
pace roughly twice the state average, he said.

Conservation groups say those moving to rural and lakes areas
also need to be aware of how their actions affect the wild things,
and how they may minimize those impacts.

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