Controversial DFL bill giving White Earth State Forest to tribe likely dead

Photo from MN DNR website.

An attempt to rush through legislation transferring state forest land to the White Earth Band of Ojibwe appears to have hit a dead end for this session. The DFL-sponsored measure seeks to repeal the statute establishing the 160,000 acre White Earth State Forest, transfer state-owned land in it to the tribe, which would also get first crack at buying tax-forfeited parcels.

But as word got out, the Bemidji Pioneer says the controversial legislation generated a backlash among local businesses and residents that appears to have stopped the deal for now.

A bill that would turn state lands in the White Earth State Forest over to ownership of the White Earth Nation is essentially dead in the Minnesota Senate this session, “barring some strange happening in a conference committee bill,” State Sen. Rob Kupec said in an interview.

The White Earth Forest bill would have gone through the Environmental, Climate and Legacy Committee, and the environmental omnibus bill from that committee had to be approved by Friday, April 12, Kupec said. So the White Earth Forest bill missed the deadline.

“Some bills can miraculously revive (themselves),” Kupec added, noting he was not sure of the status of the White Earth State Forest companion bill in the Minnesota House. “On the Senate side, it is done for, but the House could put it back in,” Kupec said.

One of the most serious concerns behind opposition to the transfer was a fear the tribe could close off access to hunters and snowmobilers. A last-minute provision added to the Senate bill guaranteeing the land would remain open to the public failed to win over opponents.

People who use the White Earth State Forest or have property within its boundaries are concerned about losing access, because White Earth is a sovereign nation, and opinions on public use could potentially change with tribal leadership, Kupec said.

Although the Senate bill was amended, that amended version is not available online because the bill was tabled in the Senate. If the White Earth Forest bill somehow comes up for discussion again, then the amendment version would be added to the online version of the bill, he said.

“I would say the bill is stalled for now,” Sen. Steve Green (R-Fosston) said in an email. “It will not be dead until we adjourn for the year on May 23.”

The under-the-radar attempt to abolish the White Earth State Forest closely follows the playbook for the DFL-controlled legislature’s successful effort last year to close the Upper Sioux Agency State Park and hand it over to the Upper Sioux tribal community. But this time, Green and other opponents were on alert and ready to push back.

Green is himself an enrolled member of the White Earth Band, and he said that for a variety of reasons, “I think it is a bad idea. The number one reason though, is the conflict it will and is creating. There is already division among neighbors and even family members among local residents. But this is causing issues across the state. There is no real advantage to the tribes. We don’t need this,” Green said.

The White Earth State Forest elimination legislation also remains bogged down in the Minnesota House. Even so, opponents plan to remain on guard until the legislature officially shuts down for the year.