Map courtesy Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

By Robert Williams


The Becker County Board of Commissioners unanimously passed a resolution against the transfer of approximately 160,000-acres of White Earth State Forest to the White Earth Band of Ojibwe and to give White Earth Nation right of first refusal Tuesday, March 5.

Democratic Sen. Mary Kunesh and Rep. Aisha Gomez put forward a bill (SF 3480 and HF 4304) that would give state-owned portions of the 160,000-acre White Earth State Forest to the tribe by 2029 with a hearing already scheduled for later in the week.

“I just don’t know where to start with this; this is so overwhelming for such a short time frame that’s been put upon us,” said Commissioner Barry Nelson. “There are so many red flags on this that it is just mind boggling.”

Nelson listed off a lengthy list of county funding that would be lost should the bill pass.

“The list is huge,” he said. “This is at a time when the state is moving forward with a new Minnesota office that aims to catch up with states that are marking outdoor recreation as an economic boost for creating jobs and drawing visitors. We’re going to eliminate this acreage from public access?”

Nelson acknowledged that the White Earth tribe has stated their willingness to keep the land open.

“But we have no control; once they have control they don’t have to abide by what they said in a letter and if the tribal council changes then they can change it on a whim,” said Nelson. “This will impact so many people. It is just so alarming  and so heartbreaking to see this type of legislation run through there so fast and have a hearing on Thursday. It makes me really upset about our legal process.”

The state forest spans three counties Becker, Clearwater and Mahnomen. Most of the forest is within the boundaries of the White Earth Indian Reservation.

When introducing the bill, Kunesh, a Standing Rock Lakota descendant, said the bill is an acknowledgment of White Earth Nation’s sovereignty and their inherent right to manage their lands as best they see fit.

Nelson also cited the White Earth Land Settlement Act of 1985.

“The tax public has already purchased this land; if additional reparations are advisable for those that think that there are methods available other than land transfer,” said Nelson. “I just can’t understand how anyone would think this is a good idea.”

“It is in essence a reparation, but what makes a difference is that these are tribal lands, already designated by the federal government, by the state government,” said Kunesh in a press conference at the capitol. “These are already recognized tribal lands.”

Commissioner Erica Jepson said she has received calls from around the state about losing access to outdoor recreation and it affects Becker County financially and everybody in the state.

Chairman John Okeson cited locals who have discussed losing their businesses with him.

Jepson, Environmental Services Administrator Steve Skoog and Sheriff Todd Glander will testify against the bill via Zoom.

Nelson also made a motion for the board chair to hire lobbyists as soon as possible, up to $15,000 via the finance committee, which was approved.

Admin opening

Interim County Administrator Carrie Smith received a proposal on filling the current County Administrator vacancy after the board eliminated Pat Oman earlier this year. 

DDA Human Resources, Inc., would charge $24,000 to provide an executive search. DDA is already aiding the county in searching for an assistant county attorney.

Jepson noted she would like to see if applicants apply prior to using DDA.

Nelson was in favor of using the firm to complete the search.

“I would like to see somebody committed to Becker County,” said Jepson.

Chairman Okeson received full support on a resolution to utilize DDA to conduct the search with an anticipated timeline of roughly six months.

Public hearing

A liquor license was unanimously approved for Swanies Pub owner Bradley Olek in Cormorant Township during a public hearing. Olek has revamped both the campground and the bar/restaurant. The board heard from neighbors Jeff Mortenson and Laurie Olson of the lake association on concerns regarding the pub changing the atmosphere of the lake, according to Olson.

“Our stance is we want to be good neighbors; we are excited to have a restaurant on the lake,” she said. “It has nothing to do with this gentleman or Swanies. It is our entire area; it seems to be you can walk from bar to bar. We’re getting a lot of bars.”

Olson’s concern was about other bars that have been disruptive in the area and wanted to clarify where concerns can be brought.

Mortenson’s concern was about recurring late night activities and disturbing noise he said occurred with the former owners, but wished Olek well in his business pursuit. 

Swanies is located at 12668 County Highway 5 in Lake Park.