Brad Dokken: Hunting access discussion an exercise in grassroots democracy

Mar. 23—An exercise in grassroots democracy took place Wednesday morning, March 20, during the bimonthly meeting of the Grand Forks County Water Board.

Until earlier this month, I'll admit, the doings of the Water Board weren't on my radar screen and had never factored into my coverage plans as an outdoors writer, other than occasional stories I've done on Larimore and Fordville dams that didn't include Water Board mention. That changed when Charlie Gorecki, a Grand Forks sportsman and hunting enthusiast, reached out to me a few weeks ago with concerns about the board's recent decision to close the dam sites it manages across the county to hunting access.

First, though, a bit of background.

The Water Board manages and maintains about 10 dams in Grand Forks County — again, something I hadn't given much thought — including the Larimore and Fordville Dam recreation areas, which have always been closed to hunting. Citing safety concerns, the rising costs of repairing damage caused by vehicles driving on the dams and letters from adjacent landowners, the Water Board decided to expand the hunting restrictions to all of the dam sites it manages, a decision that affected more than 1,000 acres.

The sites, which range in size from about 40 to 320 acres, remained open to fishing and other outdoor recreation.

During the Water Board's bimonthly meeting Wednesday, March 6, Gorecki urged the board to reconsider its decision to close all of the dam sites to hunting. In addition, Scott Peterson, deputy director of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck, attended the meeting and offered to

work with the county to restore hunting access,

perhaps with an agreement to manage the lands as state wildlife management areas.

The board didn't make any decisions on March 6 but agreed to discuss the issue with its legal counsel and revisit the matter at its next meeting.

Which brings us to Wednesday's example of grassroots democracy and the Board's ultimate decision.

The Water Board's small meeting room in the Grand Forks County Office Building was packed Wednesday morning — packed in this case being maybe 20 people or so — as people, both for and against the hunting restrictions, converged to listen or share their concerns.

Peterson, the Game and Fish Department's deputy director, and Brian Prince, wildlife resource management supervisor for Game and Fish in Devils Lake, both attended the meeting to reiterate the department's commitment to working with the county to retain hunting access.

Public land is a "rare commodity" in North Dakota, Peterson said — especially in certain parts of the state, including Grand Forks County.

"The way I described it last time, I think, is still appropriate," Peterson said. "These little tracts are kind of like an oasis in the desert for the folks who like to hunt, and that's why we're here to work with the county whatever way we can to do what we can to keep them open."

Ultimately, after hearing from people on both sides of the issue in a discussion that lasted more than an hour, the Water Board opted not to work with Game and Fish on managing the lands but instead manage hunting at the dam sites on a case-by-case basis.

While his views leaned more toward the concerns of adjacent landowners "because I've had to deal with some of that myself in the past," Water Board manager Jim Heider said he also understands the concerns of hunters worried about losing access.

"Public access for hunting is an issue, too," Heider said, adding he and his sons are all hunters, although they don't always draw deer tags anymore.

Here's what the board decided:

Fordville and Larimore and dams will be closed to hunting as they historically have, and Dams 1 and 2 will be open to hunting, with no motorized vehicles allowed. Dam 4, where hunting has had the biggest negative impact on adjacent landowners, will remain closed to hunting and Dams 6, 7 and 8 will be open to hunting but not motorized access. For whatever reason, there is no Dam 3.

The board tabled action on two other dams — Dam 5 and the English Coulee Dam — until they could further study what kinds of firearms to allow, if any, for hunting on the two sites. A decision on those two dams could happen as early as April 3, the Water Board's next meeting.

"It's not going to please everybody, unfortunately," Heider said of the Water Board's decision. "There's just no way to do that nowadays."

That's democracy, for you. As Winston Churchill once said, "Democracy is the worst form of government, except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

As Water Board meetings go, I think it would be safe to say Wednesday morning's session was far from typical. In my experience, though, hunting issues tend to draw crowds. The turnout also makes a case, I think, for why public involvement is crucial to these kinds of issues.

"I personally would like to thank everyone for their comments — both for, against or whatever," Water Board chairman Tom Perdue said at the end of Wednesday's hunting discussion. "I don't remember in my six years (on the board), I've never had any response from the public like this."