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Wild rice task force calls for new stewardship council

A governor's task force on wild rice reached no consensus on major changes to protect the plants in Minnesota but instead suggests creating a permanent stewardship council to develop wild rice protections and plants for the future. (file / News Tribune)

A task force appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton last May aimed at finding ways to protect, preserve and promote wild rice across Minnesota has ended with several recommendations but no new consensus on state regulations.

The task force's final report, made public Friday, said the issue of protecting wild rice is too complex for the members to solve over a few months.

"Given the extraordinary complexity of the subject matter and the short timeline for the task force, task force members felt they would be remiss to make final recommendations on some complex areas of the topic without additional efforts and voices,'' the final report notes.

Instead, task force members said their primary recommendation is to create a new, apparently permanent state Wild Rice Stewardship Council to develop long-term solutions to wild rice problems and long term protections for wild rice lakes and rivers.

The proposed stewardship council members "would represent a wide range of interests and perspectives, and be charged with making interdisciplinary recommendations on the management, monitoring, outreach research, and regulation regarding wild rice,'' the final report notes, adding that the new council would be tasked by the state to recommend a statewide standardized monitoring program, recommend a comprehensive, statewide management plan for wild rice; encourage more research on wild rice; and develop a "roadmap" for protecting wild rice from sulfate.

Dayton formed the task force by executive order in May 2018. The 14 members met nine times over three months to find ways to address the "regulatory, economic, and scientific challenges associated with protecting wild rice."

The final report outlines several recommendations to the Minnesota Legislature and to incoming Gov. Tim Walz to both protect wild rice and support continued economic development and job creation across the state, including developing better relations between state and tribal interests; instructing the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to improve its variance process; and declaring the first week of September "Wild Rice Week" to build awareness of the value of wild rice in Minnesota.

The task force — comprised of representatives from Red Lake Nation, Dakota Tribes, iron mining and copper mining corporate officials, environmental advocacy groups, scientists, state and local government agencies and others — agreed on basic tenets of protecting wild rice and clean water; ensuring the viability of Minnesota communities; respecting tribal sovereignty; the need to address biological, chemical, and hydrological threats to wild rice; and sharing the burdens and benefits of any solutions the state develops.

Kathryn Hoffman, who heads the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy and was a member of the task force, said effort "made significant progress toward finding common ground on solutions to protect wild rice'' despite the limited timeframe.

"The recommendation to form a Wild Rice Stewardship Council with full representation from all 11 federally-recognized Native American tribes, bands, and communities in the State of Minnesota is critical for continued momentum forward,'' Hoffman said Friday in a statement. "We hope that Gov.-elect Tim Walz and the Minnesota Legislature adopt its recommendations so that we can continue to work together toward science-based solutions that protect wild rice."

An industry representative on the task force did not immediately respond to a request to comment on the report Friday afternoon.

The task force didn't answer the question of potential sulfate pollution of wild rice beds from industrial pollution, especially mining, and from sewage treatment plants. Scientists who have studied the issue say sulfates can convert to sulfides in some waters and harm development of wild rice. But there is disagreement between industry scientists and others on how much impact those sulfides have, especially in waters with different iron contents and chemistry.

The final report offered a vague statement on sulfate saying that, while most researchers agree the sulfate/sulfide process harms wild rice "there are wild rice waters that do not fit this relationship where wild rice thrives. The rate at which sulfate is converted to sulfide, and how wild rice plants are affected, is an active area of scientific discussion."

The report also notes that while the Pollution Control Agency has forwarded an equation to determine the sulfate/sulfide/wild rice relationship for individual lakes and rivers "other researchers have disagreed with this approach and think the equation does not sufficiently capture the dynamic biological, chemical, and hydrological relationships related to the effects of sulfate on wild rice. Some researchers believe the equation-based approach proposed by MPCA was over-protective of wild rice, and others believe it was under-protective."