Minnesota DNR committed to public engagement in transfer of Upper Sioux Agency State Park to tribal ownership
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources representatives met March 28 with the Yellow Medicine County Board of Commissioners to hear concerns about the proposed transfer of Upper Sioux Agency State Park to the Upper Sioux Community.
GRANITE FALLS — The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources supports the transfer of the Upper Sioux Agency State Park to the Upper Sioux Community , and is committed to opening a public engagement process for those affected.
Ann Pierce, director of the parks and trails division of the DNR, told the Yellow Medicine County Board of Commissioners on March 28 that public engagement is going to be essential to the process of transferring the park to tribal ownership.
She said the department has staff developing a plan for community engagement, and is hoping the commissioners will help in the engagement process.
Pierce and Scott Roemhildt, the DNR’s regional director for the 32 southwestern counties, said legislation now moving forward in the House and Senate requires the DNR to identify the barriers to making that transfer happen and to recommend legislation to address those barriers. The legislation demands a full report by Dec. 15, 2023.
The DNR in December began conversations with federal officials on a possible transfer, they told the commissioners. The park and its approximate 1,400 acres were originally acquired with federal funds under the Land and Water Conservation Fund, known as LAWCON. Transferring ownership requires approval from the U.S. Department of the Interior and the National Park Service. Pierce said there is a process that allows for the transfer, and the DNR is determining what has to be done.
There are a host of other encumbrances on the land — such as trail grants that require the land's use for the public — that need to be addressed as well, according to Pierce and Roemhildt.
The DNR is looking at how it can replace the recreational and other opportunities and values the park provides, as well as the value of the land.
Roemhildt said Upper Sioux Tribal Chairman Kevin Jensvold has been requesting the transfer during meetings with the DNR — and with governor’s offices — for a number of years. He said the department responded by pointing out the complexities of making the transfer.
While the DNR did not initiate the legislation, DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen and Gov. Tim Walz have publicly voiced their support for the transfer, Pierce and Roemhildt said.
Pierce said the DNR supports the transfer due to the extraordinary significance of the land to the tribal community.
The commissioners expressed concerns about the transfer and its impact on the area, its possible implications for other public lands, and the divisions the proposal may create.
“It’s a pretty big hit for us,” said Commissioner John Berends, of Granite Falls. He said the park “makes life better here,” and cited a wide range of values it represents to the region. “The constituents I’ve talked to are not very happy about this.”
Berends said Fort Snelling State Park and many other state parks also have significant cultural and historical importance to Indigenous people in the state. “Are you guys prepared to do this with all of your parks?” he asked.
He also expressed concerns about what he termed the “stealthy nature of this.”
“This has been going on behind the scenes and all of a sudden it pops up and there is no time to talk to the legislators, no time to get to the Legislature. It could have been done a different way,” Berends said.
Commissioners Ron Antony and Greg Renneke also cited their concerns about the impact of the decision.
Renneke said the county “treads lightly” when it considers federal grants for public lands in the belief it carries perpetual obligations. If the state provides funds to the county for replacement of recreational opportunities, he asked whether those funds would come with perpetual obligations.
Granite Falls Mayor Dave Smiglewski told the DNR representatives that the cart has been put before the horse in not seeking public involvement prior to the introduction of legislation. He cited the Grand Portage State Park within the Grand Portage Indian Reservation in northeastern Minnesota as an example of a partnership that could be a template for the Upper Sioux Agency State Park.
According to the Grand Portage State Park history page on the DNR website , the park was established in 1989 through the cooperative efforts of the state of Minnesota and the Grand Portage Band of Chippewa Indians. The land is leased from the Bureau of Indian Affairs which holds it in trust for the Grand Portage Band.
Smiglewski also expressed doubts about how the Yellow Medicine County area could be made whole from the loss of Upper Sioux Agency State Park.
“You’ll never replace the historical significance of that park at that location and its natural and cultural and environmental (values)," Smiglewski said. “It is the most beautiful area in this county and this part of the state. To give it away and to pay to give it away so that only a few can go there seems really wrong.”