St. Louis County drops opposition to tribal land saleSt. Louis County commissioners voted 7-0 as a committee of the whole today to sell two parcels of tax-forfeited forest land to the Fond du Lac Band of Chippewa.
By: John Myers, Duluth News Tribune, Pine Journal
St. Louis County commissioners today dropped their opposition to selling county forest land to the Fond du Lac Band of Chippewa.
Commissioners voted 7-0 as a committee of the whole to sell two parcels of tax-forfeited forest land to the band. The board is expected to give the sale final approval at its March 2 meeting in Duluth.
It was one year ago when the County Board made headlines for a double-edged stand against the Fond du Lac Band’s effort to repurchase land within the reservation.
First, the board ordered its land commissioner not to sell county forest land to the band.
In addition, the board’s chairman wrote a formal letter to state and federal authorities opposing the sale of private land within the reservation to the band if the land is taken off county tax rolls and placed in federal trust.
Board members opposed to the land sales said that placing land in Indian trust reduces the amount of taxable land in the county and this spreads the tax burden on fewer, remaining landowners. They noted that 63 percent of the county is already in county, state or federal government control and not paying property taxes.
But supporters of the band’s efforts to reacquire its reservation say Fond du Lac should be given the right to rebuild its reservation for housing, hunting, traditional harvesting and other activities. Supporters of the land sale held a rally on the county courthouse steps expressing anger at what some felt were racist remarks and actions by some commissioners.
“My mother’s lineage can be traced backward past the forming of the Fond du Lac Reservation" in 1854, said Abrum Olson, a Fond du Lac band member, told commissioners Tuesday. “These lands are sacred to my family’s people.
I ask that the County Board show the willingness to work with different tribes ... on a government-to-government level."
The two parcels, about 94 acres total, lie within the boundaries of the Fond du Lac Reservation in Stony Brook and Brevator townships. The band will pay the county about $150,000 for the two parcels, with the money divided among the state, county, school districts and local governments.
“That they even have to buy it at all is appalling to me," said Beth Bartlett of Duluth. As a St. Louis County taxpayer, she said, “I’d rather pay higher taxes than be complicit” in keeping Indians off their own land.
Increasing Indian-owned land within the reservation boundaries is a top priority of the Fond du Lac tribal government. The band in recent years has acquired 3,000 acres of former Potlatch Co. land and has sought to buy other private and county lands as they become available. State law offers the band the first chance to buy county forest land if it is for sale.
In 1854, the band controlled more than 100,000 acres within reservation boundaries in Carlton and St. Louis counties.
Now, less than one-third is in official reservation trust status. Much of the land was taken back in the late 1800s and early 1900s and sold or given to white settlers, railroads and lumber barons.
Steve O’Neil, St. Louis County commissioner from eastern Duluth who sponsored the land sale, said he was surprised but grateful that other commissioners have softened their stand against Fond du Lac regaining its land within the reservation.
“We’ve been fooling with this issue for a year-and-a-half. ... It shouldn’t take that long," O’Neil said.
“I think over the last year, commissioners got to hear from [Fond du Lac Band Chairwoman] Karen Diver and the band ... and frankly from a lot of their own constituents who support this," O’Neil said after the vote. “It was something like 95 percent support from the people I heard from.’’
It remains unclear if the County Board will reverse its stand opposing tribal trust status for Fond du Lac lands purchased from private landowners.