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DNR to make aerial inspections in Beltrami County

Wetlands filter runoff into lakes, streams and groundwater, stabilize lake levels and provide wildlife habitat and fish nurseries.

But Minnesota's wetlands are rapidly disappearing due to development. Some of the drainage and filling is permitted, but much is in violation of the Wetland Conservation Act.

On Friday, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources began aerial surveys of Beltrami County. DNR Conservation Officer Don Murray is piloting a GPS-equipped single-engine Scout made by the American Champion Co. of Rochester, Wis.

Capt. Perry Bollum, wetland enforcement officer supervisor, said the surveys check for evidence of residents doing work below the high water mark, removing aquatic plants and draining or filling in wetlands.

"It's the great big sponge in the earth," said Rich Sprouse, DNR enforcement public information officer. "We keep plowing them up and covering them up."

"We've lost half the wetlands Minnesota used to have," said Bollum. "In the agricultural part of the state down south, we've lost over 90 percent. In some counties, 99 percent is gone. People have to pay attention to what we're losing."

He said Beltrami County still supports more than 80 percent of the original wetland, but development encroaches on the swampy areas and lake homes proliferate. Bollum said the state's population is forecast to increase by 1.2 million people in the next 25 years. Many of these people will seek lakeshore property.

"They want that green lawn down to the lake and they fertilize the lawn and get a good rain and all that nitrogen runs into the lake," he said.

Until last year, Sprouse said, the six DNR wetland enforcement officers surveyed for violations mostly from the ground, but aerial surveillance is more efficient and effective. He said flights have logged 370 violations in central Minnesota since May 1.

If Murray observes a disturbed wetland or shoreline or evidence of aquatic plant removal, he notes the location with the GPS system and snaps a digital photo. Bollum said the officers then check with local Soil and Water Conservation Districts to see if the landowner has a permit. If not, the field officer will draw up cease and desist work restoration orders. At that point, the violation is not a criminal case, Bollum said.

If the landowner continues the work or fails to make the restorations, the case moves into the criminal category and the DNR will write a ticket charging the offender.

"People sometimes just don't know what they're doing is a violation," Bollum said.

Consequently, he said the DNR holds regular educational seminars and announces through the media the aerial surveillance schedule.

Bollum urged area landowners to contact the Beltrami Soil and Water Conservation District before they do any work on a wetland or shore. He said the DNR's goal is to prevent damage before violations occur.

In addition to wetlands violations surveys, Murray said he conducts aerial population surveys, such as counting eagles' nests and radio-collared wildlife.

Murray and Bollum are based at the Grand RapidsDNR Headquarters.