Forest Service eyes late May for decision on Lutsen Mountains
WTIP file photo

Forest Service eyes late May for decision on Lutsen Mountains

U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland spent time in West Texas and New Mexico during recent days help to highlight the work being done to conserve parts of culturally significant lands in the Southwest, the Associated Press reports.

But it also marked an opportunity for Haaland — as head of the agency that has broad oversight of tribal affairs — to deliver on promises to meet with Native American tribes that have grown increasingly frustrated about the federal government’s failure to include them when making decisions about land management, energy development or the protection of sacred sites.

In Cook County, this issue surfaced with a proposed expansion of Lutsen Mountains, the local ski resort on the North Shore. Lutsen Mountains is seeking a special use permit to “construct recreational ski trails and support infrastructure” on approximately 500 acres of federal land within the 1854 Ceded Territory. As the process nears a possible conclusion, officials with the U.S. Forest Service maintain the position that input from three Chippewa bands will play an important role in determining the considered expansion of Lutsen Mountains.

A decision on the request is expected from the U.S. Forest Service in late May, local Forest Service officials confirmed with WTIP April 4.

Tofte District Ranger Ellen Bogardus-Szymaniak told WTIP the EIS review is taking longer than expected, or is typical, due to the volume of comments that came in about the proposed expansion. More than 600 comments in the form of handwritten letters or emails were submitted, including many substantive comments, according to the Tofte Ranger.

As of April 4, the Forest Service is about three-quarters of the way through the review process of the comments, she noted.

Jim Vick, operations and marketing director of Lutsen Mountains, told WTIP last November that ski hill officials started working on a development plan in 2014. The plan was presented to the U.S. Forest Service in 2017, which researched the proposal and initiated a scoping period, gathering public feedback on what should be considered before a special use permit would ever be granted. The Lutsen Mountains request and public comments were reviewed and compiled into the draft environmental impact statement (EIS), which was available for public comment until last December.

When Lutsen Mountains came to the Cook County Board of Commissioners with information on the proposed expansion in 2018, Robert Deschampe was the District 1 county commissioner. He has since been elected chairman of the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. As a commissioner, Deschampe pointed out that 1854 Treaty rights had to be considered as part of the Forest Service’s review. Vick said there has been communication with tribal leaders.

Vick said in 2014, Lutsen Mountain officials met with tribal leaders to inform them of the ski hill’s proposal and to get initial feedback. And, Vick said, when the Forest Service created their scoping document, they identified the 1854 Treaty Rights as an area of concern. He said as they should, the Forest Service is working with the three Chippewa tribes associated with the 1854 Treaty—Bois Forte, Fond du Lac, and Grand Portage.

Nationwide, Haaland’s selection as the first Native American to serve as the U.S. Interior Secretary opened a door for tribes who pointed to a history fraught with broken promises.

Haaland has since met with nearly 130 of the nation’s 574 federally recognized tribes as she seeks to overhaul a federal system that has limited Native American relations to a check-the-box exercise.

And while some tribes say her aspirations are admirable, others remain skeptical they will see real change and say they have yet to experience meaningful dialogue with the federal government or key decision makers.

Under the U.S. Constitution, treaties and statutes, the federal government must consult meaningfully and in good faith with Native American and Alaska Native tribes when making decisions or taking action that is expected to impact them.

However, a 2019 report from a government watchdog found some federal agencies lacked respect for tribal sovereignty, didn’t have enough resources for consultation or couldn’t always reach tribes. Another top complaint from tribes is that they are brought in when a course of action already has been set, instead of including them in the earliest phases of planning.

When it comes to the possible expansion of Lutsen Mountains, the Tofte District Ranger told WTIP in 2021 that Forest Service staff “very much hear the frustration and what the bands want” concerning treaty rights and the intersection of the ski hill developing on public land.

“This is up to 500 acres that would have some permanent change to the landscape,” Bogardus-Szymaniak said, “and it would change the access to band members. So yeah, that’s a concern, and how do we go ahead and work through that, is there a way?”

Though conversations about land management are taking place across the country between tribes and the federal government, for its part, Superior National Forest hired a full time tribal liaison late last year. This is the first full time position with this title in the history of Superior National Forest, which includes the 1854 Ceded Territory.

In a comprehensive document explaining treaty rights in Minnesota’s 1854 Ceded Territory, it reads: “The treaty-reserved rights to harvest natural resources on the 1854 ceded lands are protected property rights under the United States Constitution. In this regard, the 1854 Treaty Authority plays a critical role in ensuring that the federal government, as a treaty signatory, upholds its treaty obligations, which includes an obligation to protect the natural resources on which the 1854 Treaty agreement is based.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.