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Better fishing access to Sakakawea part of House appeal of rule

Fishing on Sakakawea. North Dakota Game & Fish file photo

WILLISTON, N.D.—Among the fine print in the repeal of the Waters of the U.S. rule passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in early June is language aimed at improving access to fishing at Lake Sakakawea.

The language was included in the bill after Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., was contacted by various constituents concerned about boat dock permits not being renewed and various access points being closed, particularly as these things relate to accommodations for handicapped individuals. There were also general concerns about the Corps' recreational spending, Cramer's office staff said.

Cramer said the language in the bill is report or guidance language.

"It doesn't have the same teeth as law, but it has an awful lot of teeth. It's guidance, but it's pretty firm that we want them to alleviate those barriers wherever practical," Cramer said. "And that would, I think, be in most places."

Cramer said federal agencies generally tend to lean toward least risk, and that the language in the bill would hopefully let them know that Congress has their back when it comes to any sort of liability created by having more public access points.

"It lets them know we have their back and that we are encouraging them to lighten up," Cramer said. "Those are public lands. It's a public access lake. They are the manager, but not the landlord."

Fences began popping up on Lake Sakakawea at long-standing access points, which has made dozens of anglers in the area unhappy.

A meeting between anglers and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was arranged by state Rep. Patrick Hatlestad, R-Williston, in May.

Corps Deputy Operations Project Manager for Garrison Project Wade Spooner agreed during the meeting to tour access points that had been fenced or closed around Lake Sakakawea to see what might be needed to re-open them.

After the tour, Spooner said it seemed that most of the areas could be reopened with minimal adjustments. Some areas might still need a fence to keep ATVs out, however, he said.

"That's the actual problem out there," he added. "It's not about trying to keep fishermen out. It's trying to control the ATVs."

Some areas might also require a camp host for increased access, such as at Little Egypt.

Camp hosts are volunteers who agree to keep a daily watch on a particular access point. Their tasks could include picking up trash, shutting gates after dark, collecting any fees for the campground's use and so on.

Access points also have to be safe for the general public to access, Spooner said.

"We are not providing access along a road unless there's a parking lot," Spooner said during the May meeting. "It has to be safe access for everyone using the river."

That includes not only anglers, but also people who are there to hike, bird-watch, picnic or any of the other uses compatible with the lake's master plans.

ATVs in general are not compatible. They tear up wildlife habitat, particularly along the shore, where certain types of birds like to nest on flat, sandy beaches.

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