Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) dealt a sharp blow to property rights in Roseau by announcing it would not require an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for its Roseau Lake Rehabilitation project. The project has generated controversy for threatening to make productive, multigenerational farmland of over fifty families unusable, as well as for the frequently changing justifications for the project and lack of transparency. An EIS is issued for projects that DNR determines have the potential for “significant environmental effects,” a process that the Roseau County Landowners Coalition hoped would help expose the disastrous effects DNR’s and the Roseau River Watershed District’s (RRWD) project will have on Minnesota farmers. Now, Roseau farmers must rely on making their voices heard by elected leaders and government officials to stop the project because the environmental review process has failed them.
The Roseau County Landowners Coalition has worked alongside the Institute for Justice (IJ), a national nonprofit dedicated to stopping government abuse of property rights.
“A project that would render thousands of acres of productive farmland unusable is certainly ‘environmentally significant,’” said IJ Activism Manager Melanie Benit. “DNR’s refusal to require a full Environmental Impact Statement for this project is a prime example of government unaccountability.”
The coalition condemned DNR for being both the project proposer and reviewer, and RRWD for its failure to hold up its mediation agreement concerning flood damage reduction projects, noting the proposed Roseau Lake project will do nothing for exceptional storms, a benchmark agreed upon for flood reduction projects. The project work team, which includes landowners and whose participation in project development is required by the agreement, has also been largely ignored by the RRWD for years.
The given justification for the project has constantly changed—from a wetland habitat for ducks, to an attempt at flood reduction for areas outside Roseau, and a project for recreational activities. But for whatever reason the state uses to move the project forward, it would mean one thing for Roseau landowners: they would lose the farmland that they worked so hard to own and would no longer be able to pass it down to their children.
Mitch Magnusson is one of the farmers whose history of working Roseau’s rich farmland goes back generations. Mitch began working his own land in the 1980s; before that, Mitch and his brothers helped their father farm, who helped his father farm, who helped Mitch’s great-grandfather farm after he immigrated from Iceland in the 1800s. He expressed the anguish DNR’s decision means to him while calling for fellow Roseau landowners to keep fighting.
“It’s disgusting that they won’t consider conducting an EIS. It really goes back to why the DNR checks their own homework,” Mitch said, adding: “We’re going to continue fighting it to the end. It is a setback, but none of us are giving up.”
Mitch’s son Matthew Magnusson also pursues the family tradition of farming Roseau’s land for crops like soybeans, wheat and sunflowers. He noted that, while the DNR project no longer calls for outright taking of his land through eminent domain, the project’s inevitable catastrophic damage to his land is hardly better.
“The property that we call our own isn’t really that if they can take it away like this. What good is freedom, if you can’t keep your own property?” Matthew said.
Patrick Nortz, a licensed hydrologist and certified professional engineer, estimated that this project will result in minimal flood reduction downstream—at a price tag for taxpayers of $15 million, greater than RRWD predicts. Far from a lake, the project would turn the usually dry basin into a semi-permanent marsh, typically six inches deep and up to 18 inches. Meanwhile, surrounding farmland will flood more.
The Kveen family, which has been farming in Roseau for over 130 years, lamented DNR’s decision and the risk it poses to their land.
“This is devastating,” said Debby Kveen. “As Americans we expect there to be a framework in place to protect us, our family, and our land. In this case, the system has completely failed us. It feels like we don’t have a voice.”
Landowners in Roseau, while devastated by the decision, are not giving up. They plan to make the case to the public that this wasteful project is only riding on its own inertia and must be stopped to protect the property rights of Minnesotans everywhere.
“It’s never too late to do the right thing,” said IJ Assistant Director of Activism Chad Reese. “DNR and RRWD can and should finally listen to the people who have owned, lived on, and farmed this land for generations and put a stop to this unnecessary $15 million boondoggle. Today, it’s farmers in Roseau. Tomorrow, it could be any Minnesotan farmer. Property owners throughout Minnesota should be deeply concerned about this process, because the current system is stacked against them from the very beginning.”