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‘State of the Band’ focuses on repairs and rebuilding in 2013

Jana Hollingsworth

Forum News Service

Winter weather and a social media comment about wearing “bulletproof vests” for the occasion caused the cancellation of this year’s State of the Band speech for the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa on Feb. 20. Instead, a report from the Reservation Business Committee was mailed out to Band members earlier this month and a copy was shared with the Pine Journal by a Band member.

The year 2013, for the Fond du Lac Band, was one of repairs and rebuilding and less about growth, Band Chairwoman Karen Diver said in an interview with the Duluth News Tribune before the meeting was cancelled.

Following are highlights from the State of the Band report and planned address:

In 2013, the Band struggled with the effects of sequestration. About $900,000 in federal money was cut, including money slated for roads, the Ojibwe school, the clinic and Head Start. Some of that will be restored this year, Diver said. She testified in Washington, D.C., last year on the effects of sequestration on the Fond du Lac Reservation.

Those cuts also affected the Band’s ability to leverage money to build more multifamily housing to deal with its housing waiting list, which stands at about 150. Some on the list have housing, but are in homes they have outgrown, Diver said.

The Band’s two casinos still are feeling the effects of the Great Recession.

Referencing the Black Bear Casino Resort, Diver said, “the resort property as a whole has been holding its own, but we don’t expect huge growth.”

While the Band remains one of the larger area employers, its roster shrank from 2,200 to 2,100 employees in the past year. While Diver declined to give the payroll amount, she said it has gone up because of raises.

subhed: Flood recovery

More than 30 percent of the reservation’s housing stock was damaged in the 2012 flood, along with several roads. The flood also revealed how isolated the area could be during catastrophic events like a flood.

“2013 was very much about disaster recovery,” Diver said.

Repairs to affected homes were completed; a Bureau of Indian Affairs-funded $1.5 million bridge, which would better withstand future floods, was built to replace a washed-out culvert; and work is being done to make roadways out of the reservation more accessible.

“It took a lot of time, effort and governmental attention that year,” Diver said.

subhed: Environment

The Band continues to play a large role in the region’s environmental concerns. Its wildlife biologists have been leaders in finding out why the Northeastern Minnesota moose population has dwindled to half its level since 2006.

Because of that work, Diver said, the Band is in the beginning stages of exploring the reintroduction of elk to the area, starting on the reservation.

The Band also continued its restocking of the St. Louis River with sturgeon, something it has done since 1998. Sturgeon are sensitive to sulfide levels, “so watching that species tells us a lot about the health of the river,” Diver said.

The Band’s scientists have been among the most active in raising serious issues challenging the Polymet Environmental Impact Statement. Diver said the Band will continue to weigh in “heavily” on that, with concerns about sulfides and computer modeling of potential impacts of a proposed mine on water quality, for example.

“I think we found a lot of validation in this process for our scientific capabilities, as well as our regulatory capabilities,” she said.

The Band’s scientists have reviewed potential mining operations and involved agencies under the EIS to ensure natural resources would be protected.

Diver was appointed this year by President Barack Obama to the Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience, which advises the administration on how the federal government can respond to communities throughout the country on the issue of climate change. Diver was one of two tribal leaders nationwide chosen for the group. The experience, she said, lends itself to the environmental work being done at home.

subhed: Legal battles

The Fond-du-Luth Casino revenue-sharing saga between the Band and the city of Duluth drags on into this year. In January 2013, the 8th District Court of Appeals ordered a district court judge to re-examine her decision to waive future payments to the city but require the Band to pay more than $10.3 million in back payments through April 2011, when an initial revenue-sharing agreement with the city expired. Upon revisiting the case, Judge Susan Nelson reached the same conclusion in October. The Band has filed an appeal.

Diver said of the issue, “Frankly, we’ll always have that property in Duluth. We’re still hoping someday the Band can move forward in its economic development effort as a good neighbor and put this behind us.”

Pine Journal Editor Jana Peterson contributed to this story.