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Legislators won't back forestry center bills

Lawmakers need to sign off on any U transfer to Fond du Lac

Although University of Minnesota administrators say the transfer of the Cloquet Forestry Center is essentially a done deal, Carlton County legislators say they won't vote for bills proposed in the Minnesota House and Senate that would support the land transfer to the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

In response to questions posed by the Pine Knot News, Rep. Jeff Dotseth (R-Kettle River) and Sen. Jason Rarick (R-Pine City) both said they would "not support" any measures to move this bill forward, especially, they said, after hearing from local elected officials with concerns.

A similar legislative proposal - a bill to return White Earth State Forest land to the White Earth Nation - is stalled in the legislature current session, which will end May 20.

The Cloquet Forestry Center is a 115-year-old research forest spanning 3,400 acres run by the University of Minnesota. The land was originally part of the Fond du Lac Reservation, purchased by timber companies in 1908 to create an experimental research forest. Students have joined researchers to work on projects - many of them spanning decades - and learned how to be foresters. The land is largely undeveloped, with a cluster of buildings used by the university, Extension services and a variety of community groups and the Fond du Lac Band for activities, including a recent lacrosse camp.

The university administration wants to return the land to the Band, one of many actions to improve relations with the state's tribal communities implemented by former U of M president Joan Gabel. Gabel pushed for a transfer with no strings attached when she addressed the Board of Regents finance committee a year ago. Gabel has since left Minnesota to take a job with the University of Pittsburgh.

University spokesperson Jake Ricker confirmed there has been no formal action by the Board of Regents.

"Such action would require public discussion and vote by our Board of Regents," Rickar wrote in response to the Pine Knot in February. "From a procedural standpoint, last February's item was an information item for the Board and the public to understand the status of conversations happening at that time."

Ricker asserted, however, that there is an understanding of the intent to return the land established by Gabel's presentation to the Board of Regents finance committee in February 2023.

Official votes needed

Legislative approval is required to complete the land transfer, because some portions of forestry center land belong to the State of Minnesota, not the University of Minnesota or its Board of Regents. Additionally, the state legislature must "defease" any outstanding state general obligation bonds used to improve the university facility. Over the past 25 years, according to the

Senate bill summary, the property has been improved with about $2.8 million in state bonding dollars through the Higher Education Asset Preservation program.

"The main point we struggle with is the lack of transparency throughout the entire process," Rarick and Dotseth wrote in a joint column. "This issue came up last year, and the entire process has felt incredibly rushed. That land has been used for years of forestry research, and much of it has also been open to the public."

Both expressed concern about the loss of the internationally recognized longtime Minnesota research facility, as well as the possible loss of access for nontribal members.

And then there's the issue of money. The two lawmakers pointed out the forestry center is a taxpayer-funded facility.

"We would also like to note that the University came to the Capitol this year asking for supplemental funding amounting to $46 million," the two legislators wrote. "The land value alone is between $25 and $75 million. Unfortunately, before they give it away, they have no interest in doing a full valuation of the land. If they chose to sell this land, at least half of their funding request could be met. The taxpayers shouldn't be left with the bill for this request when there are clearly other means they can use to reach their goal."

Negotiations continue

After Gabel's departure in the summer of 2023, Rebecca Cunningham was selected as the 18th president of the University of Minnesota system in late February, with an inauguration planned for summer. Jeff Ettinger remains interim president and the Cloquet Forestry Center has only been mentioned as an ongoing negotiation.

In February, university officials declined to share a copy of the Memorandum of Understanding regarding the Cloquet Forestry Center transfer. The Pine Knot News recently obtained a copy from other sources.

Signed in January by Fond du Lac Reservation Business Committee members and Myron Frans, senior vice president for finance and operations for the University of Minnesota, the memorandum states that the agreement is effective on the date of the last signature - that of Frans, who signed Jan. 10, 2024. He retired from the university on March 1.

The memorandum documents the "shared understandings and commitments" of both parties, and their intent to (1) develop a land transfer agreement "to facilitate the repatriation of the CFC land back to the Band" without charge; (2) "jointly manage natural resources on the land pending that transfer," and (3) negotiate and agreement to leaseback the CFC land and facilities to the university.

The agreement doesn't include estimated costs or a timeframe for a leaseback other than the phrase "a period of years."

The memorandum does specifically outline specific tasks:

The first task requires the university to consult with the Band on policies and actions affecting the CFC. "Determinations as to whether an action or decision may impact the Tribe's exercise of treaty-reserved rights, on-Reservation ecosystem management, and/or other Band needs and interests must incorporate Tribal input to the maximum extent possible. The Parties also commit to ongoing discussions regarding appropriate access protocols both before and after the land transfer."

Other tasks address traditional cultural properties as defined under the National Historic Preservation Act, including an agreement that the university will reimburse the Band for a Tribal Cultural Resources survey of the forestry center property, as well as a review of any historic material in the university's possession or control. The university also agreed to return to the Band any historic or cultural artifacts associated with the Band or the CFC property. An environmental assessment will also be conducted of the land and facilities.

The memorandum calls for "timely, open and comprehensive information sharing" between the Band and the university. It also states that some information shared should be "protected from disclosure to third parties to the fullest extent of the law," while acknowledging that the university must comply with the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act and the state's Open Meeting Law.

As a sovereign nation, Fond du Lac Band officials do not have to comply with either state law.

Either party may propose an amendment to the memorandum or withdraw from it by providing 30 days written notice.

Concerns arise

Sen. Rarick and Rep. Dotseth aren't the only ones expressing concern about the future of the Cloquet Forestry Center.

At the first and (so far) only public listening session held in February, opinions on the land transfer varied, with some advocating for joint management of the land, many advocating for a better and slower process, and others asserting the Fond du Lac Band's right to the land that was theirs under the 1854 La Pointe Treaty.

Karen Diver, former Fond du Lac tribal chairwoman and now the university's senior advisor to the president for Native American affairs, acted as moderator at the listening session. She told the nearly 100 attendees that the ongoing negotiations include a transition period, so the university can continue to educate forestry students and conduct ongoing research while they determine what happens next.

The university has not formally addressed any long-term plans for ongoing forestry training and research if the Cloquet Forestry Center is no longer an option.

Mark Thell, former Carlton County commissioner and Soil and Water Conservation District board member, traveled to St. Paul last week to advocate for a slowed process and more meetings with stakeholders for actual input. He is worried activities such as the 50-year-old Conservation Days - when area fifth-graders spend the day outdoors learning at the forestry center - will end, along with other county conservation efforts.

"More than anything, I'd like to see the mission continue," he said.

Thell said he doesn't object to the Fond du Lac Band owning the property, but suggests they should pay for it.

"We're beyond reparations," he said. "Look at the revenue the casino brings into the Band. Enbridge said it spent $450 million with the tribes in Minnesota, including Fond du Lac. They have the funds. Let's not ask the people of Minnesota to pick up $30 million or more."

Written response

The Upper Midwest Law Center also jumped into the forestry center debate this spring, releasing correspondence its attorneys directed to interim president Ettinger and the Board of Regents. The nonprofit describes itself as a "center-right public interest law firm" with a mission to safeguard "against government overreach, left-wing special interest agendas, constitutional violations, and public union corruption."

In a three-page letter written Feb. 23, the law firm expressed concerns that the Board of Regents (and university administration) wasn't complying with its own code of conduct for various reasons, including that the university's real estate transactions procedure requires that the administration determine that the real estate is no longer needed to fulfill the university's mission.

In a four-page email response March 5, Douglas Peterson, general counsel for the university, pointed out the real estate transactions procedure also allows disposition of real estate when that action "better meets the university's needs or better supports the university's mission."

"That judgment over the university's mission rests with the Board of Regents," Peterson wrote.

The university attorney also vigorously rebutted questions about a conflict of interest for Diver and argued that the Board of Regents was not bound by the 1909 state statute requiring the land to be managed as a forestry center.

On April 2, the law center wrote again, asserting that there was no time limit on the university's obligation to manage the land as a research forest and experiment station. They questioned a university statement about the forestry center assuring employees "that we will continue to provide world class research and teaching opportunities in forest resources."

"We would submit that it is not possible to reconcile these statements with the disposition of a 115-year-old world-renowned forestry center for no compensation. Will the university be required to seek taxpayer funding for another forestry research center?" the law center asked.

Peterson simply acknowledged receipt of the four-page letter and referred to his March 5 response.

In the meantime, the Minnesota House and Senate bills to approve the land transfer were last reported to be with the Capital Investment committees for each body.

Local legislators remain critical of the haste and a troubling lack of transparency to date.

"We are sympathetic to the cause, but we truly believe this situation could have been handled in a much better way," they wrote.