Skip to main content

County Commission split over Fond du Lac land acquisition

CLOQUET, Minn. – A majority of commissioners on the St. Louis County Board are opposed to a tax forfeiture land sale to the Fond du Lac Indian Reservation because of a loss of tax revenue.

The land in question is actually two parcels located within the band’s reservation boundaries; 80- and 33-acre parcels. There is an additional 1,900 acres within reservation boundaries the band is interested in purchasing as well.

Karen Diver, chairwoman of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, said Minnesota state law requires any tax forfeit land available within the band’s borders be offered to the band on a right of first refusal. “The issue is really two-fold, the first is a directive from the board to the county land commissioner not to sell tax forfeit land to the band, and the second is the county board has expressed an opinion opposing the transfer of that land into trust status.” The band does not pay property taxes on trust land.

The band wishes to purchase the land back to use for housing, to spur economic development and to preserve habitat. “A lot of what we were left with after the Dawes Allotment Act of 1887 was wetlands that are non-developable. We are a seasonable people who enjoy being in the woods for hunting and gathering; we want to preserve that as well.”

In 1854, the band controlled more than 100,000 acres within reservation boundaries in Carlton and St. Louis counties. Less than one-third of that is now in reservation trust status.

Steve O’Neil, county commissioner for the district of Duluth, said the state owns almost 900,000 acres of tax forfeit land in the county. Most of that land when sold to private parties is then taxable.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

O’Neil believes the commission should sell the land at the appraised value to the band. “We have very little interest or demand for land within the reservation, except for the band itself. They have done a great job in providing an infrastructure and support for their members, such that members are returning in significant numbers to live on the reservation. They are building housing and creating jobs – they have about 2,000 jobs with more than half those being non-gaming. They have a significant social services and law enforcement infrastructure and maintain and largely build their own roads. They are providing many of the services that traditionally the county would do in rural areas. In my mind, those are significant reasons to assist them in rebuilding their economic self-sufficiency. Historically, I don’t know how anybody can deny them their land on the reservation. Ethically, we should work to restore that land to its rightful owner.”

Diver and O’Neil agree the band’s efforts to reacquire acreage within its reservation in St. Louis County is statistically insignificant to the county’s property tax base. O’Neil said the tribe has purchased about 360 acres over the past five years, with the tax assessment on that land averaging about $650 a year, per acre. “The land department felt it was likely the 33- and 80-acre parcels would probably be in that ballpark as well.”

“From fee to trust applications, the county would have to make a fairly compelling case to the federal government. They can certainly block any sale of tax forfeit land, but it doesn’t support their argument of no net loss of tax base because the land is already in tax forfeiture,” Diver said. “What I characterized to the board recently was the county has enjoyed collecting property taxes on our land anywhere from 20 to 100 years when it never should have been on the tax rolls in the first place.”

According to O’Neil, County Board Chairman Dennis Fink has led the movement to stop the land sale. “He has been strongly making the point that the band would not be paying property tax on it. We have sold the band land for years, but he has decided for whatever reason to draw the line at this point.” Fink was not available for comment.

Diver said she wants tribes across the country to be aware that the National Association of Counties is supporting the position to adopt a no net loss of tax base, specifically involving tribal reacquisition of land within reservation borders. “The NAC is taking a stance contrary to the self-sufficiency and sovereignty of tribes to reclaim and have control of land on reservations. Tribes should strive to create relationships to build understanding that strong tribal governments able to meet the needs of their members reduce the burden on municipalities.”

O’Neil said overwhelming response from the public and his constituents has been very positive and in support of the band. “The law is really on their side, unfortunately the action that has been taken has slowed and really made it difficult for them to attain the land. I am hopeful that in the next few months we will make the right decision.”