The Clearwater County Board of Commissioners sent this letter to the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council on January 9. Commissioners Daniel Stenseng (chairman) and Neil Illies (vice chairman) signed it. It has been lightly edited.
Commentary Outdoor News January 30, 2015
Dear Council Members:
While Clearwater County is in support of the conservation of our lands, we are troubled by the fact that the White Earth Tribe has requested funding from the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council for $2,188,000 for the purchase of 1,994 acres on the White Earth Reservation and within Clearwater County. Our concern is that the lands, as described in the White Earth application, would be put into federal trust status. Trust status would result in the removal of state regulation, non-member rights to freely use the land, and removal of the land from the Clearwater County property tax roll.
The transfer from private land ownership to trust status will transfer all management rights, licensing, game regulation and enforcement to the tribe. The tribe can set its own limits and seasons, which normally include a longer season and a higher game limit than the state’s.
Once the land becomes trust status, the tribe can and probably will restrict access to the property for multi-use access such as hunting, and the all-around enjoyment of the land by members and non-members. The intention of the Legislature when they voted to authorize the creation of the Outdoor Heritage Fund was the open access to public lands for everyone. In trust status, the tribe has the right to restrict access anyway it sees fit without the oversight of the state of Minnesota. This can be through outright exclusion or the issuing of permits to allow individual access. The effect of funding this request will mean that sales taxes from Minnesota will be used to purchase land for the tribe and the federal government. Trust land status will result in the removal of the property from the-property tax rolls. This will shift about $12,000 of property tax money from the current fee owner to other property owners in the local taxing authorities, including the county, school districts, and the township. We do not believe the intent of the Legislature was to make schools suffer while funding the federal government.
Over the years, local governments, the Legislature, and governors have expressed concern about increasing property taxes. The decrease of the tax base does in fact increase taxes on the people owning property in the areas where these large exemptions occur.
Although the county would prefer to keep this property in the local tax base, a better option than turning the land into federal trust status would be to allow the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to acquire the property. If this property is of significant conservation interest, the DNR manages numerous parcels of land adjacent to the subject property, and the payment in lieu of taxes program would support the revenue needed to provide local services. Clearwater County and the DNR manage over 2,000 acres in that area that could be landlocked, as is what happened in a recent lake access issue on Heart Lake in land held by the tribe. There is currently unobstructed access across the Potlatch land, but in trust status this land could be posted as restricted, as other tribal lands are now. With state ownership, access to county- and state-managed property would be maintained and public access would not be in jeopardy.
It is very concerning that Page 4 of the tribal application shows that local governments will not be consulted in regards to this action. We believe that any time funding from the LSOHC, and with effects of this type, the local government should and must be consulted. Map 2 erroneously included four townships that are not part of the reservation. The application also states that there are 829,000 acres in the reservation, which is incorrect. The tribe included the acres in the ceded four townships. As such, the reservation does not border the west edge of Itasca State Park as described in the application. As outlined in this letter, we are very concerned about the long-range effects that allowing the funding and the conversion of the land into trust status can have on the citizens of Clearwater County. Every one is aware Indian law is very complicated and can put non-members that cross onto trust land at the mercy of the tribal court, as seen in Red Lake fishing violations in 2006. We plead to the council not to approve this request, and if it has already moved to the House, that the council make further recommendations to the House not to approve the funding.