Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Tribal report: Urgent action needed to protect wild rice

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 1/17/19

REGIONAL— The ongoing political battle over how to protect wild rice in Minnesota is heading back to the Capitol as legislators are being asked to create a new stewardship council designed to seek …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Tribal report: Urgent action needed to protect wild rice


REGIONAL— The ongoing political battle over how to protect wild rice in Minnesota is heading back to the Capitol as legislators are being asked to create a new stewardship council designed to seek ways to address the apparent decline in the state’s official grain.

A task force on wild rice, created by Gov. Mark Dayton last year, recommended formation of the council in a report the group issued in December. But the task force and its work was overshadowed by a decision by the six member bands of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribes (MCT) not to participate out of concern that the group leaned too much in favor of the regulated industries that discharge sulfates, a pollutant that a slew of studies indicate is linked to declining stands of wild rice.

Those regulated industries include taconite mining and major electrical utilities, according to Margaret Watkins, a water quality specialist with the Grand Portage band. Watkins said members of the Grand Portage band have rights to hunt, fish, and gather throughout the 1854 Treaty region and so have a strong interest in seeing wild rice protected throughout northeastern Minnesota.

Dayton had offered the MCT, which represents the Bois Forte, Grand Portage, Fond du Lac, White Earth, Leech Lake, and Mille Lacs bands, a single seat on the governor’s task force, which prompted the decision to withdraw. Instead, tribes from across the state agreed to create their own wild rice task force to assemble relevant science and make recommendations for lawmakers on how to improve conditions for wild rice.

Their report, issued Dec. 15, is substantially more urgent in its appeal than the governor’s task force, and includes a recommendation to begin implementing and enforcing the state’s wild rice sulfate standard of 10 milligrams per liter. “There’s a thread running through the entirety of the tribal report intended to elevate people’s awareness of the fragility of wild rice,” said Nancy Schuldt, water protection coordinator for Fond du Lac. “It’s very sensitive to environmental changes and is so degraded already. We need to pull out all the stops to protect it.”

At one time, it appeared that state officials were interested in doing so, approving the country’s strictest sulfate limit in the U.S. back in the mid-1970s, in order to protect the valuable wild grain. But the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency failed to enforce the rule, even though it was required to do so under the Clean Water Act. Under pressure from environmental groups, tribes, and the EPA, the MPCA began taking steps to enforce the standard several years ago, which prompted representatives of the state’s mining industry to push back— hard.

The industry found support at both the Legislature and from many operators of small wastewater treatment facilities around the state. Industry-affiliated groups had suggested those operations could be forced to spend millions of dollars to clean up sulfate discharges. But tribal officials discount that contention, suggesting such claims amount to scare tactics by pro-industry groups. “What our analysis really showed is that their wastewater discharges, by themselves, are not causing a violation of the sulfate standard,” said Watkins. “What we did see is that those communities discharging near a mine or major utility likely wouldn’t need treatment if the mines and utilities would clean up their situation.”

The Legislature has largely sided with the industry, however, passing a law in 2015 to effectively prevent the MPCA from enforcing the sulfate standard until it could devise a new one, based on updated scientific research which the Legislature funded. But when that research largely confirmed the need for the existing standard, the MPCA faced more political pressure to weaken the wild rice standard. In the end, the agency proposed a so-called “flexible,” formula-based standard,but an administrative law judge disallowed the new approach. That’s when the governor proposed a task force to see if the various stakeholders in the fight could find some common ground. As proposed, the new stewardship council would expand native participation to include representatives from all six of the MCT-affiliated tribes.

That’s a step forward according to Kathryn Hoffman, CEO of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. “The recommendation to form a [council] with full representation from all eleven federally-recognized Native American Tribes and communities in the state is critical for continued momentum forward,” said Hoffman, who served on the Governor’s Task Force. Hoffman said the tribal wild rice report also “provides helpful and important guidance on the next steps to protect wild rice.”

Leya Charles, with the Prairie Island Sioux community, served on both the governor’s panel as well as the tribal task force, agrees that the stewardship council makes sense, but she worries that the makeup of the panel could significantly affect its progress. She said representatives from the regulated industries have pushed back against proposals for more regulation until there is total scientific certainty. She said some of the views expressed on the governor’s panel “came from a place where there is not a lot of information or understanding” about wild rice or its importance to native peoples. “People who are in the field and are seeing the effects on wild rice and how much it’s shrinking, they’re willing to try more things with a little less certainty.”

Schuldt, who participated on the tribal task force, also supports a stewardship council, noting that tribes have advocated for such a group for years. But both she and Watkins are concerned about the membership of the group, and question whether the regulated industries should be members of the council. “Sustaining wild rice is not their mission,” said Schuldt.

Tribal regulators, like Watkins, say state agency officials have been too willing in the past to take the concerns of industry over those of the tribes and it’s clear that such long-simmering frustrations are likely to be a factor in the ultimate decision by tribes to take part in a stewardship council.

Both Watkins and Schuldt also fear a council could be used as another means of delaying what the tribes feel is essential— namely enforcement of the 10 mg/l sulfate standard.

“We’ve been pushing for enforcement of existing rules since 2006,” notes Schuldt. “Despite shining a bright light on that, here we are in January 2019 and we still don’t have a permit written in the state of Minnesota that requires the mining industry to clean up its pollution.”

The Fond du Lac band recently took steps to try to advance that goal. The band filed suit against the MPCA on Dec. 31, arguing that the new permit it issued for the Minntac tailings basin fails to comply with the wild rice standard among other issues (see related story page 9).

One of several maps included in the tribal report highlights the degree to which high sulfate levels in some northeastern Minnesota watersheds appears to be strongly connected with mining, with the highest sulfate levels appearing right along the southwest-to-northeast trajectory of the Iron Range. The map also indicates that some downstream waters, such as the St. Louis River and Lake Vermilion, are experiencing higher-than-normal sulfate levels according to test results.

While the entire issue might seem a relatively minor one to many Minnesotans, Schuldt said the future of wild rice, known as “Mahnomen” to the Ojibwe, is fundamental to the spiritual and physical health of native peoples in the state. “It’s more than food,” she said. “It’s medicine, identity and culture.”

According to Schuldt, historical records show that Mahnomen was once widespread in North America, east of the Rockies, but has seen dramatic decline since European settlement. “With westward expansion, and things like agriculture and forestry, what is left now is largely confined to the state of Minnesota and few areas in northern Wisconsin and a handful of locations in Michigan,” she said. “It’s profoundly diminished from its historic range.”


2 comments on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here
Please log in or register to add your comment
Steve Jacobson

I believe the reason that they are ignoring the sulfate level is because the standard was set by those who didn't have a clue as to what ridiculous low number they set. Change it to a more reasonable level so that companies can comply without having the threat of having to shut down.

Friday, January 18
Scott Atwater

This shouldn't be a political battle at all. Scientific study concludes that sulfate levels are only one part of the equation as it affects wild rice. The one size fits all approach doesn't work here, standards need to be set in a case by case basis. More science, less politics.

Sunday, January 20