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Published February 01, 2009, 01:00 PM

REGIONAL ROUNDUP: Reservation land... military coal...biodiesel jet fuel

St. Louis County is trying to block efforts by an American Indian band to buy back land on its reservation. That land would then become exempt from local property taxes.

Reservation land: St. Louis County is trying to block efforts by an American Indian band to buy back land on its reservation. That land would then become exempt from local property taxes.

Officials of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa have made two requests through the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs to place two parcels of private land — about 113 acres total — in federal trust.

County Board Chairman Dennis Fink of Duluth is leading the effort to oppose the tax-exempt trust status. In tough economic times, Fink said, the county, school districts and Stony Brook Township need as much land on the tax rolls as possible.

“We need to say: ‘No net loss of private land.’ This is another way our tax base is eroding in St. Louis County,” Fink said.

Fink notes that 63 percent of the northeastern Minnesota county’s land already is exempt from property taxes — including national and state forests, county forest land, school trust land and parks.

“If it was 33 acres one time we wouldn’t be here,” Fink said. “But what we’ve found when we started looking at this is that it’s growing exponentially every year.”

Fink said 2,022 acres in the county have been purchased since 1999 by Indian bands — Fond du Lac and Bois Forte — with 711 acres of that already placed in trust.

But Commissioner Steve O’Neil of Duluth said the Fond du Lac band has the right to rebuild its original reservation. The reservation was awarded to the Fond du Lac band by federal treaty in the 1800s, though much was later allotted to individual band members.

Over the years, many band members sold their land to developers and others, often to unscrupulous buyers. Some was simply taken away and given to homesteaders. Eventually, more than 80 percent of the more than 100,000-acre reservation was under non-Indian ownership. That has dropped to about 70 percent with recent band acquisitions. The reservation includes parts of St. Louis and Carlton counties.

Military coal: The Air Force has rejected private proposals to build a coal-to-liquid fuels plant at Malmstrom Air Force Base, saying such a plant could interfere with its ballistic missile operations.

The agency last year had invited companies to finance and build a plant that would convert coal into 25,000 barrels daily of jet fuel, diesel and other products.

The proposal was part of a plan to help the U.S. find alternatives to foreign oil. The Air Force wants to power half of its domestic fleet with such synthetic fuels by 2016, under a program begun under former Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne.

In a news release, Gary Strasburg of Air Force environmental public affairs, said a review by Air Force experts determined the private corporate proposals to build a plant were not viable. The review cites possible conflicts with Malmstrom’s role as one of three U.S. Air Force bases that maintain and operate the Minuteman III nuclear missile, including security risks, interference with missile transportation operations and “explosive safety arcs and flight safety issues.”

The Air Force has refused to say how many companies put in bids to build the plant.

The Air Force in 2006 began certifying synthetic fuels for use in its fleet of warplanes.

The initiative was part of a broader program to develop a reliable source of domestically produced synthetic fuels for the military. Backers of that effort have said it would ease the country’s dependence on oil from volatile regions such as the Middle East.

Although test flights have proven successful, they have not satisfied concerns over the environmental drawbacks of producing coal-based fuels, which can emit more greenhouse gases than petroleum.

Biodiesel jet fuel: Japan Air Lines said it has conducted a successful first test flight of a commercial airliner using the oilseed crop camelina.

Friday’s demonstration flight on a Boeing 747-300 used a blend of 50 percent conventional jet fuel and 42 percent camelina. Two other biofuels crops completed the blend.

Camelina thrives in the high-latitude plains of Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and south-central Canada.

Industry representatives project that hundreds of thousands or even millions of acres of the crop will be planted in coming years. But competition posed by recent high wheat prices has kept plantings modest — with fewer than 20,000 acres of camelina last year in Montana.

GF County crash probe: The Grand Forks County Sheriff’s Department is investigating if a deputy whose squad car crashed into a Larimore, N.D., apartment building followed proper emergency driving procedures.

The car crashed through a front picture window about 9 p.m. Jan. 25. Two families in the building were not hurt.

Sheriff’s Major Mike Fonder said the deputy was responding to a domestic violence call and lost control of his car on a patch of ice.

Charged mayor quits: City officials said Kevin Winson, 47, no longer is mayor of Maddock, N.D. Winson is among seven people accused of raiding abandoned farms and conspiring to manufacture methamphetamine. City officials said he quit as mayor.

Witness tampering plea: A Belcourt, N.D., woman has agreed to plead guilty to witness tampering in a federal drug conspiracy case known as Operation Paint By Numbers.Carletta Bercier, 25, is charged with intimidation or force against a witness.

Buffalo on the loose: State veterinarians in North Dakota and South Dakota are investigating of bison on a ranch that straddles the border are being mistreated.

The 6,000 animals belong to Wilder Ranch, part of a corporation owned by Maurice Wilder, Clearwater, Fla. Landowners and officials in south central North Dakota said about 1,000 bison that have crashed through fences have been running loose on their property for weeks and look malnourished.

NDSU bodyguard question: North Dakota State University President Joseph Chapman has directed the head of campus safety to assess the position widely regarded as Chapman’s bodyguard after public scrutiny.

Chapman has had an armed NDSU police captain occasionally join and drive him to school events since fall. Chapman said he didn’t request extra security but it’s needed because of “concerning incidents,” including one in which someone agitated about a student-related issue entered the president’s home while the family was there.

Refinery strike likely today: With a third contract offer rejected, some 24,000 refinery workers from the Gulf of Mexico to North Dakota prepared to head to the picket lines Saturday just hours before an existing labor agreement expires.

Shell Oil Co., lead negotiator for the industry, along with Exxon Mobil, said its refineries would continue to make gasoline, diesel and other fuels using nonunion or replacement workers.

The 140 maintenance and operation employees at Tesoro Corp.’s refinery in Mandan, N.D., are among workers who could walk out.

Peanut product recalls: Supervalu Inc. has voluntarily recalled novelty ice cream sundae cones from several of its chains that may contain peanut products contaminated with salmonella.

Eden Prairie, Minn.-based Supervalu said the recall includes Cub Sundae Cones (6 Count UPC No. 41130-47379) sold at Cub Foods stores. Other recalls involving Minnesota companies include a recall by Best Maid Cookie Company peanut butter cup dough, which was distributed in Minnesota as Lund’s Peanut Butter Cup Dough.

And Caribou Coffee is recalling Caribou Fruit and Nut Blend Trail Mix, distributed nationwide.

Disaster status requested: Gov. Tim Pawlenty is requesting a federal agricultural disaster declaration for Mahnomen County in northwestern Minnesota because of heavy rains last summer.

He sent a letter late this past week to new Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, former governor of Iowa. Pawlenty’s letter said the sugar beet crop sustained extensive damage from excessive rains in August, September, October and November, as well as freezing temperatures in November.

Pawlenty is requesting federal aid for affected farmers.