Money, race, politics tangle northern Minnesota land deal

Trails created by dozens of canoes.
When lawmakers killed White Earth Nation's request to buy land not far from Lower Rice Lake using state Legacy Amendment funds, they said it was about taxes. Critics say it's about keeping tribes from owning land. Here, repeated trips by canoe created trails to the lake's abundant wild rice beds.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

The White Earth Band of Ojibwe had a deal lined up last year to buy 2,000 acres of forest, grassland and water west of Itasca State Park using a $2 million Minnesota Legacy Amendment grant.

Using Legacy money seemed to make sense. The funds are meant to be used partly to protect Minnesota wetlands and wildlife habitat. The band intended to keep the land undeveloped. The Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, which reviews and recommends Legacy spending, backed the deal.

State lawmakers, however, killed it. A House committee stripped the project from the bill. Rep. Steve Green, R-Fosston, sponsor of the amendment to remove the project, said the land sale would hurt Clearwater County by taking land off the property tax rolls.

White Earth is trying to revive the plan now. The band will come before the outdoor heritage panel this week. Tribal officials say this time they want lawmakers to focus solely on the merits of the plan. They don't believe taxes are the question. They believe it's about keeping tribes from owning land.

"I'd like for everyone involved to look at not who's owning the property, just what will this do for conservation."

Race is the "elephant in the room," said White Earth Land Acquisition manager Lorena Vogt.

The land has an annual property tax of about $15,000. Vogt, though, points out many other projects that were approved won't pay property taxes.

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"Let's take the race element out of it, let's take the natives owning property out of it," she said. "I'd like for everyone involved to look at not who's owning the property, just what will this do for conservation."

There doesn't seem to be any question the land, owned now by Potlach Corp., is worth conserving. The parcels totaling 2,034 acres, are nearly surrounded by state wildlife management areas. The land White Earth wants to buy would be open for public use, much like state wildlife areas.

Chris Knopf crossed an abandoned beaver dam.
Chris Knopf, major gifts officer with the Indian Land Tenure Foundation, crossed an abandoned beaver dam on Wild Rice Creek during a recent outing. "The project stands on its own for its conservation merits," he said.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Protecting this land from development will help protect water and wildlife, Chris Knopf, major gifts officer with the Indian Land Tenure Foundation, said as he walked part of the property recently, a trail across a grassland surrounded by pines, poplar and aspen by the Wild Rice River.

White Earth, he added, is concerned about protecting water flowing into nearby Lower Rice Lake, a prolific wild rice lake where tribal members harvest thousands of pounds of rice every fall.

"The project stands on its own for its conservation merits. That's really gotta be the focus of the Outdoor Heritage Fund and the legislators as well," said Knopf, whose nonprofit works with tribes across the country to "help recover traditional lands."

Green, the state lawmaker who helped kill the original deal, didn't respond to interview requests.

Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, who sits on the outdoor heritage council and leads the House committee that killed the project after lawmakers raised concerns about lost property taxes, says the project is a good one but that the land must be owned by the state.

"That's state money, collected by the state of Minnesota," McNamara said of Legacy Amendment money, which comes from a sales tax increase backed by state voters in 2008. "I believe in the area of habitat, if we're going to buy land it's best owned by the state of Minnesota."

A map showing land White Earth Nation wants to buy
This map shows property west of Itasca State Park that the White Earth Band of Ojibwe wants to buy with a Minnesota Legacy Amendment grant. Some Minnesota legislators oppose the project.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

McNamara said he's OK with money going to federal projects, and some county projects. But in this case he says the best option is to give the money to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and tell the agency to add the land to nearby wildlife management areas.

"If you were an objective person looking at this and said, hey, Potlatch wants to sell this land to somebody that's going to preserve it, have it for habitat, ricing, birding and berry picking, you'd say well wow, we've got a (state wildlife management area) on three sides already. That I think is the logical answer."

McNamara says he's not discriminating against anyone and that he's trying to properly manage taxpayer money.

Susan Olson, who sits on the outdoor heritage council with McNamara, supported the White Earth project last year and will vote for it again this year.

She calls concerns about property taxes and non-state land ownership red herrings.

"If you put anybody else's name on this, if you just pretended that this was some county that was doing this ... everybody would be like, 'Oh my god, this is the best project ever,'" she said. "But it's all about who's asking for the money."

Trumpeter swans swam on a small lake.
Trumpeter swans were seen on a small lake located on land owned now by Potlach Corp. There doesn't seem to be any question the property -- comprised of forest, grassland and water -- is worth conserving.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

The project would preserve wildlife and habitat and would be "great for the land," Olson said. "What it's not great for is a bunch of old white guys who don't like Indian tribes and that makes me angry and that's wrong.

Vogt hopes state lawmakers will recognize White Earth has the resources to do a good job of managing and protecting the land. She said she's hopeful the project will be funded this year. If not she says White Earth will bring it back again next year.

"If we can work together and we all pitch in and do our part it will be more successful," she said. "We have the resources and we're offering them. We're stretching out and hand and saying we have this and we want to help because we have the same goals."