County blindsided by DNR plan to turn over popular state park to tribe

The Upper Sioux Agency State Park draws more than 30,000 visitors annually to Yellow Medicine County in southwestern Minnesota. But probably not for much longer, given the Walz administration’s plan to transfer ownership of the popular park to the Upper Sioux Community band.

Besides providing recreational activities, the park serves as an historically significant site as described on the Department of Natural Resources website.

The Treaty of Traverse Des Sioux of 1851 moved the Dakota Indians from Iowa and Minnesota to a reservation 20 miles wide along the Minnesota River Valley extending from Big Stone Lake to Fort Ridgely. The Yellow Medicine Agency was established to administer the terms of the treaty.

In the summer of 1862, the Yellow Medicine Agency was destroyed during the U.S.-Dakota War. Upper Sioux Agency State Park was an important location during this time.

The DNR has quietly been pushing legislation that would effectively cede the 1,280-acre park to the tribe in December. Earlier this month, Granite Falls Mayor Dave Smiglewski complained to the West Central Tribune that local elected officials have not been kept up to speed on the state agency’s plans to pursue legislative approval for the transfer.

The county and city have generally had open communication with the Upper Sioux Community, Smiglewski said, and he would like to see that continue.

“All we’re asking for is, let’s slow down to gather input and share plans and ideas,” he said. “Now is the time to talk.”

Smiglewski prepared a statement in his role as chairman of Friends for Upper Sioux Agency State Park asking the legislative committee to delay action.

“We are unaware of what the transfer as written in the bill would mean for future public access and use,” he wrote. “Furthermore we do not understand the urgency for this transfer without the benefit of input from the general public.”

Nor did the DNR make an effort to brief the Yellow Medicine County Board of Commissioners about the land deal until this week. The details in the paper’s coverage come across like an old-fashioned backroom political deal.

[DNR regional director Scott] Roemhildt said Upper Sioux Tribal Chairman Kevin Jensvold has been requesting the transfer during meetings with the DNR — and with governor’s offices — for a number of years. He said the department responded by pointing out the complexities of making the transfer.

While the DNR did not initiate the legislation, DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen and Gov. Tim Walz have publicly voiced their support for the transfer, Pierce and Roemhildt said.

Pierce said the DNR supports the transfer due to the extraordinary significance of the land to the tribal community

The commissioners noted that no local elected officials back the legislation, which they stressed would not sit well with many residents.

The commissioners expressed concerns about the transfer and its impact on the area, its possible implications for other public lands, and the divisions the proposal may create.

“It’s a pretty big hit for us,” said Commissioner John Berends, of Granite Falls. He said the park “makes life better here,” and cited a wide range of values it represents to the region. “The constituents I’ve talked to are not very happy about this.”

Berends said Fort Snelling State Park and many other state parks also have significant cultural and historical importance to Indigenous people in the state. “Are you guys prepared to do this with all of your parks?” he asked.

The lack of transparency will only add to the tension expected in the room when the DNR finally holds a public meeting on the park deal in Granite Falls on April 5.

He [Berends] also expressed concerns about what he termed the “stealthy nature of this.”

“This has been going on behind the scenes and all of a sudden it pops up and there is no time to talk to the legislators, no time to get to the Legislature. It could have been done a different way,” Berends said.