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Starting in 2022, tribal members will get free permits to Minnesota state parks

The push is part an effort by the DNR to improve relationships with tribes in Minnesota. 

An image of Mille Lacs Kathio State Park near Onamia.
An image of Mille Lacs Kathio State Park near Onamia.
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

Since 2013, members of tribal nations in Minnesota have had free access to known sacred sites within the state’s 75 state parks and recreation areas. But that access has been subject to a bureaucratic process, one the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources says has been difficult at times to navigate.

In an effort to offer easier access — but also to improve its sometimes rocky relationship with tribes — the DNR in 2020 asked state lawmakers to give tribal members blanket free entry to parks, and the Legislature approved the initiative this year. 

Now, any member of the 11 federally recognized tribal nations in Minnesota qualifies for a free annual parks permit starting in January of 2022. The vehicle pass is $35 for most people.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Kelly Applegate, commissioner of natural resources for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. “We never put all those political boundaries, like state parks and state lines and counties and townships and cities. That was all imposed upon us — the concept of ‘you can’t come on these lands.’”

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How the program came to be

There has been some level of tribal access to parks for more than a decade. In 2007, the DNR said tribal nations involved in what’s known as the 1854 Treaty Authority — which manages ceded land in northeast Minnesota as part of a deal between tribes and the state — can access “specific parks and recreation areas for any purpose without a vehicle permit,” according Gov. Tim Walz’s office.

The Bois Forte Band of Chippewa and the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa are currently part of the 1854 agreement, but the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa withdrew from the agreement in 1989, according to the Treaty Authority website.

Then, in 2013, the DNR widened its policy, saying tribal members are exempt from park permit requirements when visiting “known sacred sites” at parks and rec areas across the state.

Andrew Korsberg, planning and policy supervisor for the DNR’s parks and trails division, said the agency policy could put DNR staff in an awkward position having to determine whether something was a sacred or important tribal site or not, even if they tended to just approve such requests for access by default. 

More than that, Korsberg said it was a “little bit of a burden” for someone to have to ask DNR when they wanted to go to a special site. “That seemed … just a little intrusive,” he said.

A statute would make the process more uniform and simple for tribal members, Korsberg said, and it would also formalize the policy better than a DNR initiative that can be withdrawn by a commissioner.

“This proposal would provide a more straightforward and respectful way for members of Minnesota Tribal Nations to access these sites,” says a January written proposal published by Walz’s administration.

That proposal projects only a small hit to DNR parks revenue from fewer vehicle permits purchased — less than a 1 percent decrease, or roughly $25,000 a year. Jamie McBride, a DNR program consultant for state parks and recreation areas, said the agency doesn’t yet have an estimate for how many tribal members might apply for or use the free pass, however.

McBride said the DNR is still working out some details of the free permits for tribal members. The agency wants to “have a really solid understanding of what makes up membership” and parks pass eligibility to ensure, McBride said, “there’s not a question of who got a permit and if they deserved one.” 

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“Each tribe will have its own membership criteria and we want to make sure we’re honoring that,” McBride said.

Tribal members who get free vehicle passes to state parks would still have to pay fees charged to parkgoers for certain activities, such as skiing, horse-back riding or camping. The DNR also offers free vehicle park permits for disabled veterans and active duty military personnel.

Relationships at heart of issue

The push for free park vehicle permits was in part an effort by the DNR to improve relationships with tribes. The agency, and the Walz administration, have clashed with some tribal nationals in Minnesota during the governor’s tenure. Some tribes have protested the state-approved construction of Enbridge Energy’s Line 3 oil pipeline, and the DNR has asked federal courts to block a lawsuit in the White Earth Band of Ojibwe’s tribal court in which manoomin, or wild rice, is the plaintiff.

The Fond du Lac band has also fought permits issued by the DNR and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency for PolyMet Mining’s proposed copper-nickel mine. The agency didn’t cite those legal conflicts directly in describing their push for free tribal park permits. But Gail Nosek, a spokeswoman for the DNR, sent MinnPost a statement from the agency saying “strengthening tribal relationships is a strategic priority for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.” 

“Our efforts to enact the legislation granting free park access for tribal members is a modest, but significant, part of advancing this priority,” the statement says. (The park pass isn’t the only way DNR hopes to strengthen tribal relationships. The agency has hired a full-time tribal liaison, for example.)

Applegate, the natural resources commissioner for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, said the tribe has had a good relationship with officials at two state parks inside reservation borders. Members of the Mille Lacs band have been able to fish and gather wild rice, activities protected through treaty rights, at Father Hennepin State Park and Mille Lacs Kathio State Park.

But the new state law “enhances our ability to show respect to those areas, ceremonially” and makes access easier for the tribe, Applegate said.

“In my view it’s a great step in the right direction; progressing forward with acknowledging the sovereign rights of tribal communities and Native Americans in Minnesota,” Applegate said.

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The land now designated as state parks is steeped in history and tradition for the Mille Lacs band and Applegate said they consider the areas to be sacred. Both parks are access points to the larger Mille Lacs Lake. People would travel down the Rum River to get into the lake through what is now Kathio park, while travelers from the South would come up through where Father Hennepin park is now, according to Applegate. 

Historically, the tribe relied on moving around the region seasonally to best gather wild rice, berries, or fish. “Having that ability for our people to once again engage in that seasonal round is important,” Applegate said.

Both parks are also “rich in archaeology,” Applegate said.

“Over on Petaga Point, in Kathio, there’s been several archaeological discoveries of campsites, pottery, that goes back hundreds of years,” Applegate said. “It shows the activity, it’s really kind of a neat timeline of the inhabitants of the area and how they used the resources there. And that’s pretty important for the band.”

Generally, Applegate said relationships between the Mille Lacs band and the Minnesota DNR and the Walz administration have been “moving in a good direction,” though he noted that may not be true for every tribe in the state.

“On behalf of Mille Lacs, I’m looking forward to engaging in more conversations that acknowledge the inherent sovereign rights of our people as the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe to get closer to total enjoyment of being able to hunt, fish and gather like we always did,” Applegate said.