Former White House lawyer talks about treaty rights and environmental issues in Minnesota



State and federal agencies are currently seeking public comment that could impact the future of copper-nickel mining near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, on tourism along the north coast and on the economy of northeastern Minnesota.

With so many public comment periods currently open, including for some of the most pressing environmental issues facing the region right now, it is worth analyzing the real value or role of these public comment periods when it’s about shaping policy and decision-making by state and federal governments.

Richard Painter is a professor of law at the University of Minnesota and a former White House ethics lawyer for George W. Bush. He is considering a candidacy for governor of Minnesota in 2022.

In a recent interview with WTIP, Painter said the public comment periods currently open by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the US Forest Service are valuable. He encouraged people to find out about the issues and submit comments to the agencies.

“Participate in public comment periods,” Painter said. “Submit your point of view on the impact of all these projects on the environment, on the quality of life of the people of Minnesota. “

There are three major issues in the region for which state and federal agencies are currently accepting public comment. The challenges are:

1. Considerations for a proposed “mineral withdrawal” – a 20-year ban on all new mining – in the Boundary Watershed.

2. The MRN’s review of the siting rule for non-ferrous mines near the BWCA.

3. A proposed expansion of Lutsen Mountains, the local ski resort on the north shore of Cook County.

Painter told the WTIP that public comment periods are an important part of the process when it comes to navigating these types of environmental reviews and decision-making at the federal and state levels. However, US Forest Service officials continue to stress that public comment periods on an environmental impact statement are not opinion polls. In other words, which side of an issue receives the most feedback for or against a project or process won’t necessarily determine the outcome.

And while public comments can have an impact on decision-making, Painter said there are two notable realities below the surface that can play a role as well: money and politics.

Take, for example, a situation in 2020 when the six Ojibwa bands that make up the Chippewa tribe of Minnesota wrote a letter in support of a federal bill to ban copper-nickel mining in the watershed. of the BWCA. Just days after the letter was sent, the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa and the Fortune Bay Resort Casino received a wave of phone calls and emails from various groups and politicians seeking to cancel events, including the Senator from Tom Bakk State.

Painter said the situation with Bakk illustrates how money and politics can attempt to control state and federal decision making.

“In other words, if you stand up for your treaty rights, if you stand up for drinking water, we’re going to boycott your business,” Painter said. “And that’s no way to play politics in Minnesota.”

Painter said the 1854 treaty must be considered for any environmental issues that the WTIP listening area and northeastern Minnesota currently face.

“It is absolutely essential that we honor these treaty rights,” said Painter. “And the United States has a history, of course, stretching back centuries to making treaties with Native American tribes and then breaking the treaties. So we have a treaty, we have treaties with the tribes, what are we going to do, are we going to break the treaties again? “

And regarding the proposed expansion of the Lutsen Mountains, Painter said treaty rights must be factored into any decision made by the US Forest Service.

“We are bound by our treaties with the Native American tribes. So at the end of the day this ski resort cannot expand if it violates this treaty, ”Painter said. “Now, if they want to renegotiate the treaty with the tribe, they can discuss it. But at the end of the day, there is a treaty there, and that treaty is enforced, and the treaties must be respected. And I know we’ve broken a lot of treaties with Native American tribes in the past, but that doesn’t mean when we can do that in the future. And that doesn’t mean it was right then and it’s not now.

Painter recently published an article on the intersection of money, politics and environmental issues.

He also recently spoke with Joe Friedrichs of WTIP on these topics. Its below.


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