A Minnesota state forest that spans three northwestern counties would be transferred to the White Earth Band of Ojibwe under a bill introduced by two Twin Cities lawmakers.

State Sen. Mary Kunesh, DFL-New Brighton, and Rep. Aisha Gomez, DFL-Minneapolis, put forward a bill that would give state-owned portions of the 160,000-acre White Earth State Forest to the tribe by 2029. The proposal would also give the White Earth Band the right of first refusal to buy any tax-forfeited land in the forest.

"This is an acknowledgment of White Earth Nation's sovereignty and their inherent right to manage their lands as best they see fit," said Kunesh, a Standing Rock Lakota descendant.

Tribe chair Michael Fairbanks did not return phone calls seeking comment Monday. He recently thanked Gomez on Facebook, saying the bill "will return 155,000 acres to our homeland."

"I have been working hard for the return of our original homelands of Gaawaabaabiganikaag- White Earth Nation for some time now," he wrote. "So this is very monumental we will have it officially back very soon!"

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources leaders said they couldn't say exactly how much land would be transferred under the proposal, or what would happen to 65 miles of roads and 70 miles of public trails if it were to move forward.

"We are aware of the bill, but were not consulted or involved in its development," Erik Evans, a spokesman for the DNR, said. "We are seeking information from the bill author."

Nearly all of White Earth State Forest is within the boundary of the White Earth Indian Reservation, which was created in the 1860s. By the early 1900s, a series of federal acts weakened the tribe's hold on the land and enabled schemes to defraud individual households and children of their allotted parcels, according to the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, a state agency that serves as a liaison between tribal governments and state lawmakers. By 1906, most of the reservation land was illegally taken from tribal members and their heirs, according to the council.

State lawmakers designated the state forest in the 1940s, opening it up to hiking, hunting and logging. It spans parts of Mahnomen, Becker and Clearwater counties and borders Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge to its south and Itasca State Park to its east at the headwaters of the Mississippi River. The forest of towering white pines and tamarack trees includes lakes, hiking trails and several boat launches. The North Country National Scenic Trail runs through it.

Last year, lawmakers voted to close Upper Sioux Agency State Park in southwestern Minnesota and return the land to the Dakota. That transfer involved a much smaller piece of land — 1,400 acres — and did not include as many roads, trails or other public amenities.

Home and landowners who live in or near White Earth State Forest said they are worried they could lose access not just to hunting and recreation grounds, but to their properties if public roads are closed or transferred.

"It's a question we have," said Dan Wilson, who lives on the shore of Long Lost Lake at the edge of the state forest. "I'd like the state to research this thoroughly, so if anything moves forward it's done with deliberation and input and concern for all people in the area. The ideal would be we could work together to make sure this wonderful place is accessible and is taken care of."

Kunesh, who was the first Indigenous woman to serve in the state Senate, said the tribe has assured her that the land will continue to be open for all for hunting and fishing.

"There will not be any taking of private land, they're not going to cut off access to any roads," she said.

She said the bill will be amended to say that White Earth State Forest will remain open to recreational activities by tribal and nontribal citizens.

Becker County Sheriff Todd Glander said he and his family have been going to the state forest since he was a child. The forest and its deep trails and almost-hidden lakes draw visitors from around the state that give a boost to restaurants, gas stations and stores.

"Right now this forest is open to everybody and it doesn't matter where they're from or who they are," Glander said. "Nobody wants to see that go away."

Becker County Board members will hold a meeting Tuesday and are expected to pass a resolution opposing the proposed transfer.

Peter Hovde, who lives near the state forest, wrote in a letter that the bill is pitting people against each other.

"The lack of public announcements and scheduled hearings makes it appear the authors are sneaking it through to passage," he wrote. "One injustice on top of another injustice does not equal justice."

No hearing dates have yet been set for the proposed bill in either the House or Senate.