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White Earth land buy snarled in racial suspicions, wolf worries

By Dave Orrick / St. Paul Pioneer Press

The question of whether Minnesota Legacy Amendment funds should be used to buy land for American Indian tribes has resurfaced at the state Capitol, with key supporters of one proposal crying foul after lawmakers stripped the project from a funding bill.

Tribal sovereignty, wolf hunting and racial tensions are all bound up in the controversy.

At issue is $2.2 million for the White Earth Nation to buy and protect nearly 2,000 acres of woods and meadows around Wild Rice River west of Bemidji in Clearwater County. The project was supported by the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, which recommends how to spend about $100 million annually for wildlife habitat from the Outdoor Heritage Fund — a third of Legacy Amendment proceeds approved by voters in 2008.

In February, a committee in the Republican-controlled House removed the project from the $100 million spending bill and redirected it toward the Department of Natural Resources for a different program — the only change made to the proposal. The vote was largely along party lines. In March, an attempt by Democratic-Farmer-Labor lawmakers in a different House committee to reinstate the project failed in a vote that was also mostly split along party lines.

In a letter sent to the Pioneer Press in March, three members of the Outdoor Heritage Council alleged that the only reason the project was removed was because the funds and the land would go to an American Indian entity.

“It is disingenuous to argue the Wild Rice Watershed habitat project was removed by the House committee for any reason other than ‘who’ proposed the project: a Native American Nation,” the letter says.

The letter was signed by council members Jane Kingston, Sue Olson and David Hartwell, the former chairman.

When the project was initially removed, Rep. Steve Green, R-Fosston, who led the effort, argued that his only concern with the project was the property tax revenue that would be lost by removing the land from Clearwater County’s tax rolls. Tribal members pay state sales taxes on purchases, and a sales tax increase approved by voters in 2008 pays for the Legacy Amendment funds.

Today, the privately owned property generates $12,000 annually in local property taxes. However, if the tribe takes control of the land, it would generate no tax revenue.

In their letter, Kingston, Olson and Hartwell said the transfer of the land into a federal trust for tribal control would amount to a 0.2 percent revenue loss for the county. They noted that other projects call for land to be controlled by counties, watershed districts and nonprofits. Those arrangements would similarly remove land from the tax rolls, and no lawmaker has proposed removing them.

In March, House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said he hadn’t taken a stand on the controversy, but he said the debate is about more than $12,000 in property taxes.

“Turning land over to an Indian nation, everybody knows that’s the controversial part of it,” Daudt said. He declined to elaborate.

White Earth officials say nothing about the land would change under tribal control: It would still be open to the nontribal public, and state laws would still regulate hunting and fishing.

Except wolf hunting.

Regarding wolves as kindred spirits, Indian tribes around the Great Lakes have opposed killing the animals and have not allowed hunting and trapping on tribal lands.

Wolf hunting became illegal in Minnesota, after a federal judge threw out the state’s hunting and trapping seasons in December and restored federal Endangered Species Act protections to the animal.

But for several years, the DNR held wolf hunting and trapping seasons in northern Minnesota, and there’s movement in Congress to return the practice by exempting Great Lakes wolves from the Endangered Species Act. However, officials from several tribes say they don’t plan to allow hunting and trapping on tribal lands if it becomes legal again in Minnesota.

“That’s off the table,” White Earth lobbyist Bill Haas said of allowing wolf hunting. But that’s the only thing. “One of the great things for the state is if White Earth does not want to manage the lands, or if a future tribal council puts (additional hunting and fishing) restrictions on the land, then the land reverts back to the state. We’ve made that very clear.”

For the moment, the White Earth proposal appears safe in the DFL-led Senate, which has for several years steered clear of tinkering with recommendation from the Outdoor Heritage Council.

If the project remains excluded from the House bill but included in the comparable Senate bill, the issue must be resolved in a House-Senate conference committee before a final bill is sent to Gov. Mark Dayton.

Much of the final brokering in the conference committee process is done outside of public view. So far, Haas and White Earth officials are taking a measured approach in what they’re saying publicly.

Not so for Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, who tried unsuccessfully to have the White Earth project reinstated in the House bill.

“The majority of opposition we’ve seen is either racist against the White Earth Band or not wanting the White Earth Band to be allowed their God-given right to practice their religion,” Kahn said during the Legacy Committee meeting March 17.

A similar controversy erupted two years ago when the Fond du Lac band of Lake Superior Chippewa sought $2.8 million to buy 956 acres in northeast Minnesota. The project was passed over by the Outdoor Heritage Council in 2012 amid similar arguments about control of the land and wolf hunting. But in 2013, the project won council approval and was left untouched in the Legislature, which was controlled by DFLers at the time.

While a majority of the 12-member council supported the White Earth project, there was some opposition to it and to any use of the tax money to buy land for Indians unless the tribe surrenders its sovereignty over those property.

“I believe that the lands should be under the same rules as all the other state lands,” said Bob Anderson, the council’s current chairman and mayor of International Falls. “And they’re not, not when it comes to the taking of fish or game. We need to be under the same rules. That keeps the sportsman from becoming a victim in all this.”

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.

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