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As tribal boundary issue emerges, Upper Red Lake residents take ‘wait-and-see’ approach

Jon Petrowske’s great-grandfather settled in the Upper Red Lake area in 1907, on foot from the town of Kelliher after moving from Dakota County.

The family stayed behind, and Jon — as a member of his fourth generation — ran a fishing camp until recently on the north shore of the lake. It was near the boundary of the Red Lake Nation reservation.

Petrowske said he had heard whispers throughout his life that tribal leaders at Red Lake wanted to restore the reservation’s boundary to include all of Upper Red Lake. Currently, the eastern four-tenths of the lake is owned by the state of Minnesota.

Now the whispers have turned into an open conversation between people who work and live around Upper Red about the “what ifs” of a sustained border challenge. These conversations were sparked by a recent announcement that the Tribal Council has made it a priority to reclaim all of Upper Red Lake.

In maneuvers that took place after a 1989 agreement, Red Lake Chippewa ended up with all of lower Red Lake, but the maps cut the eastern boundary of the reservation through Upper Red Lake. Al Pemberton, director of the Red Lake Department of Natural Resources, told the Star Tribune last week that the broken agreement called for the reserve to include all of Upper Red’s shoreline and a one-mile buffer zone around the lake. He said lawyers recently took the tribe’s case to Washington, D.C.

“There is concern that it will become a big problem,” said Petrowske, a business owner and commercial supplier of minnows. “There’s a lot of conversation, a lot of concern. You’ve got established businesses, resorts and homes. It’s going to be watched very closely.”

But for now, he and others say the general tone is wait-and-see.

“Because governments are involved, it will take time,” Petrowske said.

Richard Skoe, a former Kelliher town council member and owner of the Village One Stop convenience store, said it was hard for him to imagine the area around Upper Red without the winter and summer tourism anchored by the main fishing for walleye from Upper Red Lake. According to state records, visitors to Upper Red have harvested 2.8 million pounds of walleye since 2006.

Economically, Skoe said, the hypothetical worst outcome for the area would be for the tribe to prevail in its efforts and close Upper Red Lake to public fishing. “It would be devastating,” he said.

As the tribe’s anticipated challenge takes shape, Skoe said, it’s important to remember that the dynamics of any sustained effort will be both legal and political.

Other observers have speculated that the tribe may allow public fishing, even though all of Upper Red is incorporated into the reservation.

The Star Tribune this week asked two politicians representing the region for comment on the matter, but neither official responded. One is State Sen. Steve Green, R-Fosston, and the other is Beltrami County Commissioner Tim Sumner, a Red Lake Band member.

Robyn Dwight is a member of the Upper Red Lake Area Association, where she leads a movement to address a growing litter and human waste problem caused by some Upper Red ice fishermen. The problem stems from longer stays on the ice by the “wheelhouse” operators. Their illegally dumped sewage and waste pollutes tribal waters as well as state waters.

Dwight wants Governor Tim Walz to support a bill in the Legislature that will help make the state a better steward of Upper Red Lake.

“Recent concerns about boundary changes on Upper Red Lake are exacerbated by extreme litter,” she wrote to Walz. Tribal concerns about pollution make the legislation “all the more critical and timely,” she wrote.

Dwight said she doesn’t expect tensions around the border issue to rise locally anytime soon. “I just don’t want to get into the negative stuff,” she said. “I can’t do anything about it and I won’t do politics.”

Gary Korsgaden of Park Rapids said the Upper Red Lake boundary issue was an item on the agenda Wednesday at a regular meeting of the state’s citizen walleye task force. volunteers. Korsgaden said state fisheries chief Brad Parsons only scratched the surface.

“He kind of jumped on it very briefly,” Korsgaden said. “He said it was not in the hands of the DNR at the federal level.”

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