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Sep 13, 2020

Making Each Other Stronger


This profile is part of MCEA's 2020 State of the Environment: Voices Driving Change celebration. 

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In a boat Wild Ricing

Making Each Other Stronger

By Nancy Schuldt


I’ve been an environmental scientist with the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa for twenty-three years. I have some hopeful things to report, as well as some challenges.

The big elephant in the room for water quality in Northern Minnesota is wild rice, and mercury. Unfortunately wild rice (“manoomin”) is not proliferating, but rather diminishing, and pollutants like mercury and sulfate are impacting both wild rice and fish. The importance of this to tribal traditions and health can hardly be overstated. 

Key questions are, how do we reduce mercury enough so that we can not just restore populations of walleye and sturgeon, but also so that we can eat the fish we catch? How can we reduce sulfate levels in the water so that wild rice can thrive?

In the case of PolyMet, the Fond du Lac Band accepted an invitation to be a “cooperating agency” in the environmental review process because of the high potential for significant adverse impacts to resources of importance to the tribe and to Minnesota.  

Upon reviewing the environmental impact statements and draft permits for the PolyMet proposal, we identified major deficiencies in the documents. We submitted extensive, detailed official comments about these deficiencies, grounded in science and centuries of knowledge.

Yet despite the tribe’s special standing as a sovereign nation and our role as a cooperating agency, these concerns were, in many crucial instances, essentially dismissed. We’ve seen them relegated to footnotes and appendices, often with no substantive reasoning behind the state’s dismissal of what we brought to the table. And we’ve seen this type of response not only in connection with the PolyMet proposal, but in connection with existing mining operations too, where outdated permits have few actual limits and enforcement is lax.

The bottom line is this: Sulfate kills wild rice, mercury emissions including from taconite operations have local effects, and yes, we expect state agencies to be enforcing our laws.

Under the 1854 treaty (settled constitutional law), the right to hunt, fish, and gather must mean the right to healthy ecosystems that make hunting, fishing, and gathering possible.

The Band’s core position around industrial proposals in northeastern Minnesota has always been that all projects must be required to follow the rules. It is unreasonable and polarizing to write off legitimate tribal efforts to prevent pollution as being “anti-development” or “anti-mining.” Using these industry talking points to ignore tribal concerns -- in addition to doing an injustice to a long and complex history -- renders decision documents weaker and the process more impaired for everyone.

At the end of the day -- and this is the most important thing -- I believe Fond du Lac’s position and its defense of a healthy environment benefits us all. We are at our best when we consider and include the vast knowledge, experience, and wisdom that Minnesota’s tribes have to offer.

I haven’t found a silver bullet for changing public perceptions yet. But I like to think that what we’re putting out there is moving the needle and beginning to raise awareness. The Fond du Lac Band will continue to defend its resources, and we will continue to do so through our very productive partnership with MCEA. I think what we’re seeing today in connection with the County of Maui case at the US Supreme Court, the PolyMet cases in Minnesota, and the attention to failures to enforce the taconite permits over the years, are indicators of the success of our collaborative relationship.

Our futures are bound up together. We make each other stronger. Thank you to all who are standing for respect of the law, for respect of the people, and in defense of a healthy future. We must remain fully dedicated to the task. 

NANCY SCHULDT is the Water Projects Coordinator for the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. She has a Master’s Degree in Aquatic Ecology from the University of Kansas, and lives in Duluth with her family.

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