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St. Louis County selling 1,500 acres to Fond du Lac Band

St. Louis County is selling about 1,500 acres of tax-forfeited forest land to the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

The St. Louis County Board gave preliminary approval for the sale Tuesday, with the band paying $700 per acre, or more than $1 million total.

The forest is technically owned by the state but is managed by the county; it once was privately owned but went back to the state for nonpayment of property taxes.

The acquisition is just the latest in a series of purchases and land swaps by the Fond du Lac Band as it seeks to regain control of as much land as possible within the reservation boundaries.

The band is using money it received in 2014 from the state's Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council — a portion of the state sales tax designated for outdoor projects — to buy land from willing sellers to remain undeveloped, open for wildlife habitat, logging and public recreation; everything from hunting and fishing to camping and berry-picking.

"This is a win-win situation for everyone," said Frank Jewell, county board chairman.

The board's committee of the whole voted 5-0 to advance the resolution to the full board for final action next week.

The Fond du Lac Reservation encompasses 101,500 acres, more than 66 square miles. It once was entirely in tribal hands but, over a century and through various federal policies and questionable land deals, the band lost control of more than half its reservation.

Before the recent land purchase the band owned 42,480 acres. St. Louis County is the second-largest institutional landowner inside the reservation boundary at 7,457 acres, with the state of Minnesota next at 6,154 acres. Carlton County owns 2,387 acres within the reservation.

Private landowners own 37,147 acres inside the reservation, tribal officials noted.

A 1985 state law gives the band the first right to purchase any tax-forfeited land up for sale within the reservation limits.

The 1,500 acres in St. Louis County is in 26 parcels ranging from 39 to 162 acres in size. The county is withholding another nearly 6,000 acres of tax forfeited land in the northeast corner of the reservation that is not yet up for sale.

County land officials say the 26 parcels generally haven't been instrumental in the county's forest management effort to provide timber for the region's wood products industry.

Thomas Howes, Fond du Lac natural resources manager, said the money for the St. Louis County land purchase remained after another 2,555 acres of private land were purchased recently at a lower-than-expected cost. The band in recent years also acquired hundreds of acres from Carlton County in a land exchange, with the band buying private land in southern Carlton County and trading it for county land within the reservation boundary.

"This is really more about conservation than anything else," Howes said. "It brings more land under one regime for better forest management, better management for the public."

All Fond du Lac tribal forest lands remain open to the public for most activities, except wild rice harvesting, Howes noted. Title to the newly acquired lands will carry a stipulation guaranteeing public access.

"That's the reason I'm so supportive of this" land sale, said St. Louis County Commissioner Keith Nelson.

Howes said Fond du Lac eventually will apply for federal trust status for the 1,500 acres, making it an official part of the reservation and making it tax-exempt.

The biggest debate Tuesday came over where the $1 million should go. Most county land sale proceeds go into the trust land fund, as do mineral royalties and timber sales. The money is then doled out annually with a percentage going to the county, local school districts, cities and townships.

In the sale to Fond du Lac, much of the proceeds will go to Stony Brook Township, where the land is located, and to the St. Louis County school district that serves that area.

A resolution supported by Commissioner Tom Rukavina that would have instead put the $1 million into the county's environmental trust fund failed on a 5-0 vote after Rukavina stormed out of the meeting after a heated debate among several board members.

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