The Legislature, probably this weekend, will either agree to fund the purchase of 2,000 acres of Potlatch Corp. land by the White Earth Band of Chippewa — or it will deny the funding request.
The $2.2 million sought by the band to purchase and conserve land near the Wild Rice River in northern Minnesota would come from the Outdoors Heritage Fund, which is underwritten by the Legacy Amendment approved by voters in 2008.
The Outdoor Heritage Fund is overseen by the Lessard Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, whose charge is to review habitat enhancement and development requests from individuals, government agencies and others.
The council comprises 12 members, eight citizens and four legislators. For a project to win council approved, a nine-member “super majority” is required.
Late last year, when the council weighed the White Earth proposal, only eight members were in favor. Considerable debate ensued before a ninth member, Ron Schara, the retired Star Tribune outdoors columnist and Minnesota Bound TV host, reconsidered.
“What bothered me about the proposal was the unfairness of access to the land between tribal and nontribal members,” Schara said Wednesday.
“The Outdoor Heritage Fund and all Legacy money is provided by all taxpayers of Minnesota, and it seemed unfair to me, as it did to others, to fund a land purchase in which some people — tribal members — had considerably more access to the land to hunt deer, for example, than would the state’s other 500,000 deer hunters.”
Under the White Earth proposal, band members would hunt, fish and gather on the 2,000 acres according to its tribal conservation code, while nonband members would be governed by Department of Natural Resources regulations.
One result would be that band members would have a nine-week deer hunting season, with nonband members having two weeks.
Schara changed his vote after a compromise was floated by fellow council member David Hartwell. The middle ground called for the band and the DNR to develop hunting and other seasons that would apply uniformly to band and nonband members.
A transcript from the council’s Dec. 3, 2015 meeting details Schara’s summation of the compromise:
“So as I understand it, [the band] would set their seasons and DNR would match those or they can discuss it amongst themselves and come up with a matching season that would apply to both the band members and the non band members. Is that everybody’s understanding?” (Audible indications of agreement heard on tape from non ‐identified members). “I like it.”
The compromise went to the Legislature as part of the council’s $100 million habitat recommendations.
In the House, as expected, Rep. Denny McNamara’s Environment and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee instead gave the land-purchase money to the DNR. The committee’s language was approved by the full House.
The Senate, meanwhile, passed its Outdoor Heritage Fund recommendations with the compromise intact.
Now a conference committee, with members from both chambers, must forge a solution.
For its part, the DNR on Wednesday wrote to the conference committee saying the compromise was unworkable.
The White Earth Band, meanwhile, wants funding for the land purchase without the hunting seasons language, and cites as precedent the 2014 legislative approval of a similar project proposed by the Fond du Lac Band of Chippewa, which had no similar hunting-season language.
Still more complicating facts:
• No access by anyone is allowed to the land now. If the land isn’t purchased by the band or the state, it likely will be sold in smaller parcels to private owners and possibly put under cultivation by potato farmers.
• If the DNR owned the land, White Earth band members could still hunt and fish on it, according to tribal regulations because it’s in ceded territory.
• If the band owned the land, it would have to sign an accomplishment plan giving the state recourse if the band failed to undertake conservation and other goals. That said, if the band owns the land, wolf hunting would be prohibited on it, if a wolf season is ever re-established in the state.
• The Legislature already has approved land purchases by the DNR in ceded territories in which Chippewa members are governed by tribal conservation codes, not state.
• Finally, if the White Earth proposal is approved, preceded as it was by the successful Fond du Lac request for Outdoor Heritage money, what’s to stop the state’s other Indian bands from making similar requests year after year?
Lessard Sams members would benefit by legislative guidance on this and similar future requests, but don’t count on it.
Schara’s and others’ views on access are valid. But, in this case, in my view, the White Earth request should be approved.
The band, after all, not the DNR, has the best chance of conserving it — and a court-ordered two-tier regulatory system dividing band and nonband members already is in place in Minnesota.
That horse left the barn years ago.