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Minnesota's Northwest Angle seeks access through tribal lands

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news Detroit Lakes, 56501
Detroit Lakes Minnesota 511 Washington Avenue 56501

There's a deal in the works to trade 9,300 acres of Minnesota state-owned land in the Northwest Angle to the Red Lake Band of Chippewa to guarantee road access and an easement for power and telephone lines.

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The five members of the Lake of the Woods County Board favor the idea, Commissioner Ed Arnesen said. But some residents of the Angle, including resort owner Paul Colson, oppose the trade of almost 15 square miles of land.

"Something needs to be done for right of way issues and utility easements," Arnesen said. "There presently is no formal agreement on the issue of crossing tribal land. The tribe's issue is that we're in trespass.

"We're not doing this because we're nice guys. We need the access."

Colson maintains that 9,300 acres is a lot of land to relinquish to maintain the status quo. But his biggest concern is what the Red Lake Band might do with the land. Among his fears are a casino, resorts, housing developments, logging and gill nets that could ruin the fishery.

"There's 17 miles of shoreline and about six miles of it has a sandy bottom, so it's prime," he said.

Todd Beckel, another county commissioner, said the Red Lake Band already owns about 60 percent of the Angle's land, so it has the capability to take those measures without the additional land.

Utility needs

At issue is a 7.5-mile gravel road, 5.5 miles of which goes through tribal land. Adjacent to the road are power lines and telephone lines. In theory, the Band could prohibit travel and the utility lines over that stretch.

"What precipitated this was a need for a new power line through the tribal lands several years ago," Arnesen said. "The utility was granted the permit with one of the stipulations being to negotiate a longstanding agreement with the Red Lake Band. They allowed the power line because the one it replaced was unreliable and not big enough to handle the load."

Although county commissioners are involved in the negotiations that have gone on for two years, they won't have a say on the approval or denial of it. That's up to the federal government. Under the tentative agreement's terms, the federal government would purchase the land from the state and then hold it in trust for the Red Lake Band.

Complex borders

Colson said the land swap could not only harm his business -- Jake's Northwest Angle Resort -- but also the way of life of the Angle. Isolated and rich in scenery, the Angle is home to about 100 residents. Its quaintness is enhanced by having to go through Canada to reach the Angle by land.

"I already have a foreign country a quarter-mile to the north, six miles to the west and eight miles to the east," he said, referring to Canada. "Already, I'm boxed in. And now I'll have two foreign countries to go through.

"We live up here because of the lifestyle. We like it being a remote area."

A "substantial amount" of the 9,300 acres are parcels that are surrounded by tribal land, Arnesen said, so they couldn't be accessed without trespassing. But he said the tribal council has passed a resolution allowing non-band members to access those acres, with required licenses, for the likes of hunting, hiking, snowmobiling and berry-picking.

Colson said his grandfather and the namesake of the resort -- Jake Colson -- was one of four men to build the original 7.5-mile stretch of road, with the approval of the tribe.

"That land should be for everybody," he said.

Arnesen and Colson share at least one thought -- the informational meeting at noon Wednesday at the Angle Outpost will be helpful. Colson laments that previous meetings about the issue have been held three hours from the Northwest Angle.

Arnesen said the meeting will help to "dispel rumors."

Reach Bakken at (701) 780-1125; (800) 477-6572, ext. 125; or send email to rbakken@gfherald.com.

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