Twice now, Minnesota’s citizen-led Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council has voted to fund a $2.2 million conservation project proposed by the state’s White Earth Nation.
And each time, this worthy effort to save more than 2,000 acres of pristine forestland has run into a buzz saw in the GOP-controlled state House, which along with the Senate must approve the council’s funding recommendations. It’s a contemptible replay that requires a remedy before this short legislative session ends.
It’s hard to imagine a conservation project that more closely hews to the vision of Minnesota voters when they passed the 2008 Legacy Amendment — a constitutional measure to preserve lakes, rivers and habitat and promote the arts. About $110 million a year generated by Legacy sales taxes funds the projects recommended by the Outdoor Heritage Council’s 12 appointed members.
The property the White Earth Nation seeks to protect includes virtually untouched forests and world-class wild rice beds. The land was once part of the reservation but is now owned by the Potlatch Corp. The company wants to sell, and the tribe wants to buy the property intact and manage it. The land would be open to the public — not just tribal members — for hunting, trapping and fishing. The tribe has a staff ready to manage the land, while the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is already stretched thin in covering newly acquired land.
The project deserves support on its merits, and the time to get it done is now. On Friday, Potlatch spokesman Mark Benson said there’s a “very lively market” for parcels of northern Minnesota forestland.
Last year, the House voted to strip the project from the bill containing the council’s recommendations. This year, after the council approved it again, a House committee chaired by Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, approved an amendment that would put the DNR instead of White Earth at the project’s helm. This is a divisive and unnecessary move.
It is shamefully clear from two years of debate at the council and in the Legislature that the issue is the tribe’s involvement. Calls for the state to own the land instead of the tribe — which likely would place the land into a federal trust — are nothing more than flimsy excuses to exclude White Earth.
There’s no requirement that the state own land purchased with Legacy dollars. In fact, the council’s own data show that the state owns just 63 percent of acquired land. The rest is owned by the federal government, counties, cities and nonprofits. Where were the calls for state ownership when these projects went through?
Objections about the land being taken off county property-tax rolls are just as dubious. The amount lost to this project — $15,878 — amounts to just 0.26 percent of Clearwater County’s annual revenue from this tax. It’s also important to note that tribal members pay sales taxes; project opponents inaccurately have claimed they do not.
Potlatch’s Benson said that the company is monitoring the project’s legislative headwinds and that it will evaluate its options if there are further setbacks. But he stressed that Potlatch believes the property belongs “in the hands of White Earth.’’
Legislators should heed Potlatch’s conscientious leadership and approve the project with White Earth at its helm.