Legislative gamesmanship in 2015 derailed a worthy proposal from the White Earth Nation to protect more than 2,000 acres of pristine northern Minnesota forest and wild-rice habitat.
But the conservation project, which would open the privately held land to the public, is back again, and its fate hangs in the balance in the session’s waning days. Legislators should avoid repeating last year’s mistake — which raised troubling questions about biases against American Indians — and approve the project with White Earth at its helm.
The proposal seeks to use $2.2 million in Legacy Amendment sales tax revenue to acquire the land in Clearwater County from Potlatch Corp. Minnesota voters overwhelming passed the Legacy measure in 2008 to clean the state’s waterways, protect habitat and boost arts funding.
About $110 million goes to the Outdoor Heritage Fund annually. The Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, a group of 12 appointees, vets proposals and makes recommendations to the Legislature. The council’s recommendations typically sail through at the Capitol. The exception has been the White Earth project. In 2015, the council recommended funding for it, but it was stripped out of the final package.
This year, the council again recommended the White Earth project, with a majority supporting it. Opponents, citing different hunting seasons for tribal members and the public among other concerns, argued that the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) should acquire the land instead of the tribe. That doesn’t make sense. The DNR is already stretched to manage easements and newly acquired land. Its involvement wouldn’t change the treaty-rights-based hunting season, either.
Regrettably, a committee in the GOP-controlled House disregarded these facts and passed a measure putting the DNR in charge instead of White Earth Nation. But the Senate’s Legacy funding bill does not include this dubious change. The final version of the bill, soon to be hammered out in conference committee, should not either.
Fortunately, the tribe has powerful allies this year. In an interview this week, Gov. Mark Dayton said he has called Senate conference committee members to tell them to “stand strong” for the White Earth Nation. Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, received one of these calls but was already on board. He noted that there are measures in place this session that would offset lost property tax dollars in Clearwater County — one concern opponents have raised. As a history major, he also believes the project moves the state in the right direction in its relations with its Indian communities. The land and its world-class rice beds were once part of the White Earth Reservation. Wild rice is sacred in native culture, so there’s also a religious desire to have these lands under tribal protection.
Dayton’s and Saxhaug’s leadership is to be commended and heeded. Opposition to the project has not been based on its merits, but on the tribe’s involvement. That’s wrong. Lawmakers should seize the chance to bring an honorable end to this disgraceful debate.