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County, reservation land exchanges heads for the President's desk

Several small parcels of county-managed tax forfeit land on the Fond du Lac Reservation (shaded in light blue) will be turned over to the Band in exchange for a 1,500-acre, reservation-owned parcel of land in the Nemadji Watershed.1 / 2
A 1,500-acre parcel of land in Clear Creek Township (outlined in yellow) and owned by the Fond du Lac Reservation will be exchanged with the county for numerous parcels of county-managed land within the reservation's boundaries.2 / 2

A much-delayed land exchange between the Fond du Lac Band and Carlton County had to go all the way to the President of the United States in order to gain approval. Now, the proposed exchange is at last positioned to become law after clearing both the Senate and the House last week and heading to President Obama for his signature.  

The legislative approval will allow the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and Carlton County to perform a key land swap that both feel will be beneficial in managing their lands more effectively.

“The land swap with Carlton County is an excellent example of jurisdiction cooperation,” commented Fond du Lac Chairwoman Karen Diver on Tuesday. “The County benefits from having land for additional park land, and the Band is able to consolidate some additional land within our borders.”

The land exchange has been in the works since early 2011 and basically boils down to this:  The county will transfer approximately 2,900 acres of county-managed tax forfeited land parcels within the reservation boundaries in exchange for approximately 1,500 acres of forest land in Clear Creek Township.

“The exchange is subject to Minnesota Statute 94.344, which states value for value, not acre for acre,” stressed Carlton County Land Commissioner Greg Bernu.

Bernu said the primary difference is the fact that the county-owned land on the reservation is mostly low land, while much of the Clear Creek parcel is higher ground. He said the goal of the reservation is to continue to rebuild its land base through the exchange, and the county hopes to harvest timber and maintain public recreational use of the land in Clear Creek Township. He further clarified that any tax-forfeited lands within the reservation with current cabin leases on them have not been included in this exchange.

The tract of reservation-owned land in Clear Creek Township — which once belonged to Potlatch and most recently to Land and Cabins LLC — is attractive to the county because it is located within the Nemadji Watershed, which is classified as an impaired waterway, Bernu said.

“The state would like to see more of that land in long-term conservation programs,” he added.

The land, comprised of basically upland forests of pine and aspen, is also a good fit with Carlton County land management objectives, limiting development and allowing public use of the land for timber, recreation and hunting.

On the other hand, the county-managed lands within the reservation slated to be exchanged with the Fond du Lac Band are mostly wetlands that influence the wild rice beds valued by the reservation. Bernu said historically those lands have been difficult for the county to manage because they consist of several small plots scattered in a “shotgun pattern” that require several hundred signatures before the county can cross the surrounding allotment land to access them.

Bernu went on to explain that the land exchange had to be approved by the state of Minnesota as well as by an act of Congress.

“We didn’t realize that until three days before we were ready close on the deal in November 2012,” said Bernu. “The state attorney general said we needed authorization from Congress to make the exchange, because no tribe can dispose of land without it.”

There were additional delays when the federal sequester held up action on the legislation for several months. But with the firepower of U.S. Senators Al Franken (D-Minn.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), and Representative Rick Nolan (D-Minn.) behind it, the legislation finally received the blessing of Congress last Thursday.

“The Fond du Lac Band is grateful for the efforts of Congressman Rick Nolan and Senators Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar for working to so quickly to have this legislation passed,” commented Diver.

Now all that’s left is for the enabling legislation to go to the desk of President Obama for his signature, a move that most feel is a sure thing.

Bernu said he received a call from Representative Nolan the other day, who commented there are no issues that should hold it up. Bernu also talked with one of the aides to Sen. Klobuchar, who said because there’s nothing controversial about the legislation since both parties are in favor of it, there should be no problem getting it signed.

“This land transfer is important to both the Fond du Lac Band and to Carlton County — the Band supports this, the County supports it, and the Department of Interior supports it,” acknowledged Sen. Franken. “I’m very pleased that our legislation cleared Congress and will give the go ahead to make this swap happen. This is a good day.”

“This long-awaited agreement is the right thing to do for both the Fond du Lac Band and Carlton County,” added Sen. Klobuchar. “This legislation is now on its way to the President’s desk to become law so we can finally get this done.”

“This long-awaited exchange helps rectify the broken 1854 treaty between the Fond du Lac Band and the federal government by returning original land to the Band to construct much needed housing,” said Rep. Nolan. “In return, Carlton County will receive non-reservation land now owned by the Band, opening up valuable new timber and forestry resources. So this is a win-win. A bipartisan victory that benefits everyone in the region.”