Tribal council and Becker County discuss, disagree over White Earth Forest future

A meeting room filled with people
Becker County Commissioners met with White Earth Tribal Council members and staff on Tuesday to discuss proposed legislation to return the White Earth State Forest land to the White Earth Nation.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Despite no plans for public comment at the meeting attendees filled the Becker County meeting room, and then a separate room had to be opened to accommodate overflow. 

White Earth Reservation Business Chair Michael Fairbanks did not attend because of prior engagements with state legislators at the Capitol. So tribal council member Eugene Sommers delivered a prepared statement from Fairbanks which said the tribe’s foremost goal is to “preserve the state forests for the enjoyment of all.” 

The statement highlighted projects where the two groups have successfully collaborated. It also described proposed legislation at the Minnesota Legislature to return the White Earth Forest to the tribe as a “win-win for the citizens of Becker County.”

Fairbanks’ statement wasn’t all positive. It identified concerns about delaying a return of the land. 

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A man in a flowered vest listens to a conversation
White Earth Tribal Council Representative Eugene Sommers listens during an exchange with a county commissioner on Tuesday.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

“The current forest is only about one-third of its original size, the park continues to get progressively smaller every time that a piece of land is sold off,” Sommers read from the statement. “And every time a piece of land is sold off, it is closed to the public.” 

Fairbanks said that creates problems for local businesses that rely on tourism and the outdoor economy as well as citizens who rely on the forest for subsistence and spiritual needs.  

In turn Becker County Board members had their own worries.

Commissioner Barry Nelson raised concerns over the possibility the White Earth Nation will limit access to the forest if the transfer goes through followed by a change in tribal leadership.

a man seated on a dias listens
Becker County Commissioners met with White Earth Tribal Council members and staff on Tuesday to discuss proposed legislation to return the White Earth State Forest land to the White Earth Nation. Commissioner Barry Nelson listens to an exchange.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

“Many people have social media accounts today. And if you look at social media accounts, there’s many tribal members that want to get this land and make it private just to tribal members, there are those out there,” Nelson said. “I think if you are on any social media, you can find that. And if that leadership changes and those in that group got control of the council, things could change very quickly. And I think that’s a real concern for everyone here.”

That drew a strong reaction from White Earth’s Sommers.

“You’re basing things off of assumptions in social media comments, and we’re basing stuff off of facts and law,” Sommers answered. “So, are we going to make decisions based on just opinions on the internet, or are we going to be factual?”

Sommers said with county support everyone can benefit from the land transfer. If legislation does pass the transfer will not happen immediately. A working group would be created and involved parties would have five years to reach an agreement. On their end the county would like that achieved before any bills are passed.

Nelson asked what would happen if the legislation went through and at the end of the five years no agreement was reached. To which tribal representatives responded they would have no issue with extending the deadline.

a woman listens intently.
White Earth Tribal Council Representative Cheryl "Annie" Jackson listens as a Becker County Commissioner asks a question on Tuesday.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Near the end of the meeting Tribal Council member Annie Jackson extended an open invitation to everyone in the room. 

“We are good people, you are good people. So, we need to come together. And we need to work together to figure this out,” Jackson said. “We welcome all, come sit with us, have a meal. Let’s have a good discussion.” 

In his closing remarks Nelson said for the time being he would like to see the communities reach common goals in managing the forest.

“I think you have great intentions. I don’t agree honestly. But I think your intent is honorable and respectful,” Nelson said. “I don’t feel that I can support that end, but I think a partnership where we manage it together would be more than acceptable. And I would love us to start at least that level.”