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Newly introduced legislation in the Minnesota House and Senate proposes giving all state-owned land within 1 mile of Upper Red Lake to the Red Lake Band of Chippewa.

State Sen. Mary Kunesh, DFL-New Brighton, said she's keeping her fingers crossed that the so-called "lands back" bill she introduced Monday gets a hearing in coming weeks in order to advance this year. She said lots of discussion needs to happen before it can become law. Seemingly, the land would include the southern unit of Big Bog State Recreation Area and the only two public facilities used to launch boats onto Upper Red Lake.

In the House, Rep. Sydney Jordan, DFL-Minneapolis, said she introduced the same bill to help remedy an injustice that occurred more than 100 years ago in the mapping process of a treaty agreement. Tribal leaders of Red Lake Nation have said they were promised all of Upper Red Lake and a 1-mile buffer all around it.

Jordan said the state of Minnesota and the federal government altered the agreed-upon boundary and "didn't uphold their promises." Once the boundary line was drawn at a slight diagonal through Upper Red Lake, settlers moved in on the nonreservation shores to form the towns of Waskish, Kelliher, Shotley and surrounding townships.

Those places are the primary gateways to the public waters of Upper Red Lake, one of the three biggest walleye fisheries in Minnesota. It's located in the far north, inside Beltrami County.

"I should never have had to carry this bill," Jordan said Wednesday. "This is overdue. It's necessary."

Jordan and Kunesh are assistant majority leaders in their respective chambers.

Kunesh wouldn't say whether the Department of Natural Resources supports the proposed legislation. "We're having discussions,'' she said.

But as Minnesota taxpayers who live and work around Upper Red Lake were mobilizing Wednesday to kill the unexpected legislation, the DNR issued a statement saying it was not consulted or involved in the bills' development.

"We've been receiving many inquiries about the possible implications of the legislation if it were to be enacted,'' the DNR statement said. "DNR also has many of these same questions, including uncertainty about geographic scope; impacts on local communities and private property owners; recreation access; and implications for loggers, resorts, and other small businesses.''

The bill calls on DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen to "convey to the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians for no consideration all state-owned land and real property that the commissioner administers within one mile from the lakeshore of the portion of Upper Red Lake that is in state ownership."

Robyn Dwight, president of the Upper Red Lake Area Association, said the 1-mile buffer zone would include the popular camping and boat launch area inside Big Bog State Recreation Area. The state also would give away the lake's only other public boat launch, located along state Hwy. 72 next to Big Bog. (Several private resorts also provide lake access to boaters and swimmers.)

Kunesh and Jordan said tribal officials have assured them Red Lake Nation doesn't intend to limit public access to Upper Red Lake if the give-back proposal passes. But as currently written, neither bill guarantees continued access, they said.

The bills also call for the DNR to give Red Lake State Forest to the tribe. The 84,000-acre forest is located off the southeast corner of Upper Red Lake. It adds to an expansive wild area dominated by Pine Island State Forest. The bills ask the DNR to identify funding restrictions or other legal barriers to the proposed giveaways.

Dwight said she's working with a large and growing coalition of homeowners, local business owners, lawyers, local elected officials, resorts, fishing gear manufacturers, wild rice growers and others to defeat the bills. Besides lobbying state legislators and DNR officials to stop the proposed give-back, the group is calling on federal officials for help, including U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, she said.

"We got blindsided by this,'' Dwight said Wednesday. "If there's something more to learn, we're open to being educated. But this is not the right way to go about fixing a problem. It would wipe us out.''

She said many local families have lived in the area for seven generations, encouraged to settle around Upper Red Lake by the state and federal governments.

"What's being proposed is very possibly illegal," Dwight said. "This whole issue has already been litigated."

Her association released a statement saying it was "in shock that state and federal legislators would permit and promote divisive and destructive legislation that would choke our local economy, threaten livelihoods, ruin property values and take away our ability to stay in our own homes."

Calls Wednesday to the Red Lake tribal office were not returned.

One year ago, Red Lake Tribal Chairman Darrell Seki Sr. made headlines around the state when he announced the band's intention to formally challenge the 1889 treaty outcome that left 40% of Upper Red Lake under state control. Tribal officials have asserted for decades they were promised all of Upper Red Lake and another 1 mile of land around the shore. All of Red Lake and six-tenths of Upper Red Lake are sovereign tribal property.

Since 1999, Red Lake Nation natural resource experts have worked with Minnesota DNR to save and manage the combined walleye fishery. Since 2006, when a joint, years-long ban on walleye fishing was lifted on Red Lake and Upper Red Lake, Minnesota-licensed anglers have spent an average of 1.93 million angler hours per year on Upper Red. State-licensed anglers have harvested millions of pounds of walleyes since the fishery reopened.

Earlier this legislative session, Kunesh and Rep. Aisha Gomez, DFL-Minneapolis, promoted legislation that would give state-owned portions of the 160,000-acre White Earth State Forest to the White Earth Band of Ojibwe by 2029.