In what will undoubtedly be a controversial and unpopular move, Lake of the Woods and Koochiching County Commissioners took action Tuesday morning that will close several access points to the Rainy River until further notice.
Anger and frustration had been growing among many in the local community lately as they worried about the number of ice anglers traveling to the area and the traditionally large number spring open water anglers that will travel into the area over the next few weeks as the Rainy River opens up from east to west.
With the number of Coronavirus cases growing daily across the state, many were questioning the idea of seeing so many people travel in from outside the area. Many of which would likely be coming from areas where there are confirmed cases of the Coronavirus.
During Tuesday’s meeting, the Koochiching County Board met via tele-conference with the L/W County Commissioners to discuss the issue.
Commissioner Wayne Skoe of Koochiching County expressed empathy for bushinesses inside Lake of the Woods County who would likely feel the most effect by not having those anglers in the area.
“We can’t close fishing though, but we can close the accesses as I understand it,” Skoe said.
“I don’t think it’s about fishing. People are scared. People are mad. But people have to understand that it’s not that we don’t want them here, we just don’t need an influx of people now,” L/W Commissioner Jon Waibel said.
“I’d really feel bad if someone’s parents get sick, someone’s grandparents get sick, and it’s traced back to something we could have controlled,” Waibel continued.
“We have to eliminate some of the effects of what could happen by having an influx of people here.”
One of the Koochiching County Commissioners explained that he and his wife had just traveled home from Florida and were told by local health officials that they should quarantine themselves for 14 days. He said he’d heard “snowbirds” were being told to do the same, and then questioned how we could open up the area to hundreds of anglers.
“I think the Governor just said yesterday that 40 to 80 percent of the state’s population could end up being infected. I think we need limitations on what’s open and the number of people coming here from out of the area. Those people shouldn’t be traveling. Why are they coming up here to go fishing? If they’ve been exposed, or get exposed on their way here, they’re going to bring it with them,” said Koochiching County Commissioner Keven Adee.
Several of the Commissioners expressed that they had hoped the state would take action but as of yet, there has been no movement on this issue from the Governor or Department of Natural Resources.
There was discussion among the Koochiching County Board to write a letter to Governor Walz to request that the fishing season be suspended.
“My fear is that if it gets closed down, it will be the last thing he cares about in the recovery process,” Waibel commented.
He went on to say that if things get better but the walleye fishing opener for the summer is pushed out until June or July that would be even more devastating to the local economy.
“If we can do our part for the next three weeks, the economic impact would be a whole lot less than if it carried on for the next three months,” Waibel expressed.
“There’s consensus among our board to support closing the accesses, but we would not support closing the season,” L/W Commissioner Ed Arnesen said.
After some further discussion, the Koochiching County Board made it official and decided in a unanimous decision to close their county-owned access points until further notice.
Those accesses include the popular launch sites Upper Sault Landing, Frontier landing, Nelson Park landing and Vidas landing.
When asked by the Northern Light Region how Koochiching County would enforce these closures, Commissioner Skoe spoke up and said, “We’ll let our County Sheriff know and the Conservation Officers to see what they can do.”
“We’re stretched really thin but we’ll deal with it the best we can,” Koochiching County Sheriff Hedlund said.
Once their decision was made it was time for the Lake of the Woods County Board to make some decisions.
L/W Commissioner Cody Hasbargen suggested that Lake of the Woods County close landings here as well in solidarity with Koochiching County.
Lake of the Woods County doesn’t own any of the landings within their county, unlike Koochiching County, but does have right-of-way access.
The L/W County Board went on to close all “county controlled right-of-way access points that allow access to the Rainy River,” also until further notice.
“We just have to get the message out that we can’t have an influx of people up here right now,” said Arnesen.
On Monday, the Baudette City Council also closed the two public accesses within the city until futher notice.