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St. Louis County property ownership

St. Louis County opposing Fond du Lac Band reservation land buyback

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DULUTH - St. Louis County is trying to block efforts by the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa to buy back land on its reservation -- land that then would become exempt from local property taxes.

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Fond du Lac officials have made two requests through the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs to place two parcels of private land, about 113 acres total, in federal trust.

County Board Chairman Dennis Fink of Duluth is leading the effort to oppose the tax-exempt trust status, saying the county, school districts and Stony Brook Township need as much land on the tax rolls as possible in tough economic times.

"We need to say: 'No net loss of private land.' ... This is another way our tax base is eroding in St. Louis County,'' Fink said, noting 63 percent of the county's land already is exempt from property taxes -- including national and state forests, county forest land, school trust land and parks. "If it was 33 acres one time we wouldn't be here. ... But what we've found when we started looking at this is that it's growing exponentially every year."

Fink said a total of 2,022 acres in the county have been purchased since 1999 by Indian bands -- Fond du Lac and Bois Forte -- with 711 acres of that already placed in trust.

But Commissioner Steve O'Neil of Duluth said the county should support Fond du Lac's efforts.

O'Neil said the Fond du Lac band has the right to rebuild its original reservation. The reservation was awarded to the Fond du Lac band by federal treaty in the 1800s, though much was later allotted to individual band members.

Over the years, many band members sold their land to developers and others, often to unscrupulous buyers. Some was simply taken away and given to homesteaders. Eventually, more than 80 percent of the more than 100,000-acre reservation was under non-Indian ownership. That has dropped to about 70 percent with recent band acquisitions. The reservation includes parts of St. Louis and Carlton counties.

Fink authorized the county's response opposing trust status, though the board hasn't taken a formal vote on the issue.

The amount of land in question is "minisculecompared to the size of the county,'' O'Neil said. "They are trying to develop a self-sustaining community out there with schools and housing and jobs and recreation and hunting land. ... We shouldn't be working against that.''

Karen Diver, chairwoman of the Fond du Lac Band, agreed.

"It's not like we have the means to gobble up all of the land at once. It's not going to happen. This is going to be a small and incremental process,'' she said. "Otherwise, how do we accommodate economic development and housing when we only own about 30 percent of the land within our reservation border?''

The Fond du Lac land issue also has raised concerns among several county commissioners who say band members continue to use and demand services -- law enforcement, social services, courts, corrections, schools and road maintenance -- at the same time the band is moving to stop paying taxes.

Commissioner Peg Sweeney of Proctor, who represents areas of the Fond du Lac Reservation in St. Louis County, said she opposes additional tribal land coming off the tax rolls unless the band pays for a larger share of services.

Diver said the band already contributes to the local economy, generating $65 million in payroll. The band also recently gave $50,000 to the St. Louis County Sheriff's Department to help cover department costs on the reservation.

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