LOWER RICE LAKE, Minn. (AP) — The White Earth Band of Ojibwe is making a second run at a $2.2 million grant to protect around 2,000 acres of wetlands and forests in Clearwater County near Lower Rice Lake, an important source of wild rice for the northwestern Minnesota tribe.
On Tuesday, the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council will consider whether to recommend the project to the Legislature. It’s one of several projects totaling $291 million competing for about $105 million in funds generated by the sales tax hike approved under the 2008 Legacy Amendment. The council backed the proposal last year but legislators killed it.
The land along the Wild Rice River, which feeds the lake, is owned by the timber company Potlatch Corp. The tribe wants to protect the lake because its members harvest thousands of pounds of wild rice from it every fall. The crop was especially lush this year, providing tribal members with a food that holds a special place in Ojibwe culture and provides many tribal members with an important source of income.
“This rice is incredible here,” said White Earth member Robert Stevens, of Bagley, as he and his team loaded sacks into a well-used pickup a few weeks ago. A ricer can make upward of $5,000 in a good year with plenty left over for his extended family, he said.
But critics have objected to taking the land off the local property tax rolls, and say lands bought with Legacy funds should belong to the state, not tribes.
Race is the “elephant in the room,” said White Earth Land Acquisition manager Lorena Vogt, who is trying to keep the focus on the conservation benefits.
The land is nearly surrounded by state wildlife management areas. The tribe says the land would be open for public use, much like those wildlife management areas. Public hunting would be allowed, subject to tribal regulations.
Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, who sits on the council and leads the House committee that killed the project, said the project is good but that he believes land bought with taxpayer money should belong to the state. He said a better option would be to add the land to the nearby wildlife management areas.
The debate echoes the fight over a similar habitat protection project by the Fond du Lac Band. That project was eventually approved, and $2.8 million will go to the band for purchasing land in the St. Louis River watershed in northeastern Minnesota.
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