Lake Stewards on the Gull Lake Chain
Updated: Mar 4
In 2019, Dorothy Whitmer led the efforts of the Gull Lake Chain of Lakes Association (GCOLA) to start the Lake Steward program to protect the water quality of the lakes. Lake Steward is about clean waters – but it's also about individuals, their families and land. While there are many resources that explain the value of natural shorelines, this program is successful because it builds a community of caring land stewards, mentors those that are curious, and publically recognizes landowners that positively impact water quality.
Lake Steward of GCOLA has three steps:
1. Complete a four question quiz
2. Conduct a site visit to assess the property
3. Receive an award with a beautiful sign
The lake steward quiz includes four simple questions:
1. Do you use fertilizer and/or lawn chemicals such as weed killers? We highly recommend no broadcast spraying of insecticides and pesticides. Please be kind to pollinators.
2. Shoreline Buffer Zone (water’s edge to 25-50 ft landward). What percentage of the buffer is un-mowed and/or includes native grasses, plants, trees, or shrubs?
3. Upland Zone (Shoreline Buffer to access road). What percentage of the Upland Zone includes trees, shrubs, and natural ground cover?
4. Rip Rap – Points awarded if it does not exist or plants are allowed to grow into the rip-rap
There are other quizzes – Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Canada all have them. The DNR and counties put out books and brochures but most do not change landowner behavior. Many have long lists of questions or try to cover too many topics. Gull Lake decided that trying to get people involved is more important than trying to get people to do everything. The goal is to meet with people and talk about what they can do, especially if their heart is in the right place.
Dorothy shared her story: “A few years back, I received a quiz from Michigan to”Rate Your Shoreland”. I thought I had great shoreland – it’s neat and tidy and green from all the fertilizer. I entered my information and you can guess what happened. I was proud of my fertilized lawn and my score tanked and now I didn't know what to do.”
Dorothy went from not knowing what to do to learning what a natural shoreline looks like: “You have native trees, shrubs and groundcover with deep roots that hold the shore. When it rains, you have the least runoff of silt and nutrients so it is the healthiest lakeshore for water quality. Dead trees are left in the water for wildlife habitat.”
She contrasted this to what typically happens when lakeshore is developed. “All too often we have lawn right down to the lake. How does this happen? Cut down the trees, remove the stumps, pull out the shrubs, then use herbicide to kill the ground cover. Plant the crop of grass with short roots, mow it to keep it short. Now you have a high level of runoff of phosphorus from the soil and nitrogen from fertilizer. Perfect conditions for the growth of algae in the water.”
Dorothy started by staking off 25 feet from the shore and simply stopped mowing that area. After a few years, she did a shoreline restoration project. The birds and hummingbirds have come back to her property now that she’s providing habitat and has stopped spraying for mosquitoes. She talked about seeing real beauty for the first time on her property as native flowers start to bloom.
After improving her own property, Dorothy turned her attention to helping her lake and neighbors learn from her experience. She thought about what motivates people and shared a quote from Dale Carnegie: “The only way on earth to influence people is to talk about what they want, and show them how to get it.”
Dorothy explored the motivation to have a manicured lawn. “So if expansive lawns on lake shore are harmful for the water, expensive to maintain, take time away from enjoying the lake, and are poor habitat for wildlife, then why are we doing it? Shoreland owners have lawn because it is familiar, it’s neat and tidy, they want a view, to be admired for a lawn, and have a place to play.”
“Lake Steward talks about what people want and that’s what makes it so powerful. Everyone wants to protect and enjoy the lake. Lake stewards have lawn, but they also have more time to enjoy the lake, more money, and catch more fish off their dock because they have better fish habitat.”
Results from the Lake Steward program of GCOLA show that members care deeply about their lake and water quality; they were simply waiting for an opportunity to act. Of 614 members who had email addresses on file and were contacted to take the quiz, hundreds have done so. In only 2 seasons, 51 Lake Stewards have been awarded, and there are currently more than 72 candidates and inquiries about shoreline restoration have increased significantly.
Over the course of six years, Dorothy went from not knowing what to do to restoring her own property and becoming an advocate for shoreland management and kicking off a successful program with Gull Lake. She’s now on a mission to spread the program state-wide. Dorothy has offered to work with Minnesota Lakes and Rivers (MLR) to share this program with all lake associations and lake home and cabin owners in Minnesota. If you are interested in starting a program of your own, contact Jeff Forrester at email@example.com or Dorothy at firstname.lastname@example.org.
She encourages everyone to try out the Gull Lake quiz as a first step. "Who could care more for our lakes than the people who love them and live on them? That someone is you!"
Thank you, Dorothy, for caring about our lakes, sharing your story, and launching a successful program!
What can you do?