Issue of water jurisdiction flares up

There is a continuing storm brewing in Voyageurs National Park that runs along the Minnesota side of Rainy Lake. It blew up again with Barry “Woody” Woods’ decision to begin selling “SnoBear” winter vehicles to travel the frozen waters of Rainy Lake that border the national park.
The park has informed Mr. Woods that he will not be able to operate his winter tourist business using “SnoBears” within its boundaries. The reason cited is that existing federal park regulations prohibit the operation of those types of vehicles in the park.
The part of the park he would like to use is Rainy Lake. Mr. Woods contends the state never ceded its rights over the waters of Rainy Lake when Voyageurs was created.
The boundaries of this park provide many legal questions. There are agreements between states and the U.S. federal government, and agreements between Canada and the U.S., on the rights of passage of ships, vessels, and boats to carry on commerce.
A Canadian operator, under the Boundary Waters Treaty signed in 1910, would be able to transport guests along the park boundaries on international waterways without any restrictions.
However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in 1999, in the case of U.S. vs. Armstrong, ruled that Bo Armstrong, who had picked up passengers at Fort Frances and was travelling to Hale Bay in Canadian waters, was guilty of carrying paying customers within park boundaries.
The appeals court judge ruled the rules of the national park took precedence over the treaty agreements between the two countries.
Canadian authorities chose not to pursue their rights following the decision.
That decision has restricted any potential tour operator in Canada from creating a boat tour operation between Fort Frances and the eastern Canadian arm of Rainy Lake, where the boat would have to travel through U.S. channels.
The rights to control waters of federal lands in the U.S. are described in the U.S. constitution and are held by the U.S. federal government. However, most rights over water fall under the states’ jurisdiction.
One of the existing rules governing snowmobiles in the park is a speed limit. Canadians who exceeded the speed limit on snowmobiles on the U.S. side of the boundary would face the same fines as an American.
Voyageurs has one winter road that runs from the visitor’s centre for seven miles for automotive vehicles. And special permits are made available to people using trucks to haul supplies and materials to cottages across safe portages.
Park superintendent Kate Miller has indicated the park is willing to work with tourist operators and leaders to address the issue of the “SnoBear”—a vehicle that would provide an alternative winter experience to tourists who wished to visit the park in winter, using a vehicle like this in preference to a snowmobile, snowshoeing, or cross-country skiing.
The process of changing the regulations is time-consuming and involves a rigorous analysis of the change showing that it would be beneficial to the park, the economy, and the experience of Voyageurs.
The argument that is growing is one in which U.S. residents and organizations are asking the state of Minnesota whether it ceded its jurisdiction to the water that borders the national park to the federal government when it transferred state lands to the park service to create Voyageurs in 1972.
When the state donated land to the park, the enabling legislation maintained that “none of the navigable waters within the park and the lands under them” were being donated to the United States.
That call is coming from the Ranier council and the Rainy Lake Sport Fishing Club. The latter’s resolution calls for the Minnesota Supreme Court to decide if Minnesota retains jurisdiction over the waters.
International Falls city council accepted that resolution earlier. On Tuesday, it was seeking support from the Koochiching County board for a resolution relating to the jurisdiction of waters within the boundaries of Voyageurs National Park.
Kent Lokkesmoe, with the DNR office in Minneapolis, indicated he was unsure whether or not the state had given its water rights on the eastern end, or the U.S. portion of Rainy Lake, to the U.S. National Parks Service.
Barry Woods feels the state, through the Department of Natural Resources, is most capable of looking after the U.S. waters of Rainy Lake in the park.
Working in conjunction with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, the two governments successfully have restored the fish health of the lake. Limits have been changed and slot sizes have been implemented.
Currently no additional fishing licenses are required to fish in park waters. Other national parks in the U.S. require special fishing licences to fish in their boundaries.
And that possibility bothers Woods.
Woods’ long-term concern is that in the future, Voyageurs National Park regulations will restrict the development of the tourism and outdoor recreational industry in Koochiching County.
“Woody” feels the state is much more responsive to the needs of tourism in Borderland—and that wresting control of the waters of Rainy Lake in Voyageurs would be beneficial to the future financial health of the region.

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