MENAHGA, Minn. (CN) — A new lawsuit alleges that a rural Minnesota county and its sheriff’s office have escalated a property dispute as a pretext to blockade, harass and incriminate opponents of the controversial Line 3 oil pipeline, which is a characterization disputed by the sheriff himself.
The suit, filed in Hubbard County District Court Friday afternoon, alleges that the northern Minnesota county’s sheriff, Corwin Aukes, has used a dispute over an easement issue to blockade a property where many pipeline opponents have camped in recent months. Law enforcement officials from the Hubbard County Sheriff’s Office and other agencies have stopped people from entering or exiting the property via its main driveway, issuing misdemeanor citations to enforce a county decision that it is a trail and not open to traffic.
The property hosts the Namewag Camp, which takes its name from the Ojibwe name for the sturgeon. The camp is described in the complaint as “a cultural, political, spiritual and communal camp” whose occupants’ “focus is on systemic change that respects Indigenous sovereignty and the severity of the climate crisis.” Attorneys for the plaintiffs stopped short of saying that the camp or its residents played any direct role in protests of the pipeline.
Longtime environmental and indigenous rights activist and Honor The Earth founder Winona LaDuke purchased the property in 2018. LaDuke later deeded to the nonprofit Switchboard Trainers Network. The property is served by a single driveway, according to attorney Jason Steck, who represents activist AhnaCole Chapman and is serving as local counsel for the plaintiffs. The driveway, Steck said, has been used as such for over a hundred years without issue, and LaDuke obtained an easement from the Hubbard County Commissioners after her purchase over a portion of the driveway that was subjected to tax forfeiture in 1928.
The county holds that that easement, thanks to language in the commissioners’ resolution, did not transfer to Switchboard when LaDuke handed off the property, Steck said.
Steck said that the easement dispute itself bordered on the frivolous. “We have, at present, six different theories as to how there’s an easement,” he said. “If that language was effective somehow, that said Ms. LaDuke couldn’t transfer the easement, then Ms. LaDuke still has an easement.” He also said that Aukes’ notice was given less than four hours before officers arrived to enforce it, and that it was not dated.
Aukes, who said he hadn’t yet been served with any complaint, drew a straight line between the camp and protests. “These water protectors and protesters are committing criminal activity while they’re doing their water protecting and their protesting. Some of it felony offenses,” he said, emphasizing that no protesters had been arrested without being charged with a crime. “When we see violations take place over driving over the county property, that was an avenue that we were able to pursue to try and control the situation a little bit better.”
“Does it look like that this is very excessive over an easement dispute? Yeah, if that’s all this was, but it’s not, it’s a whole lot more,” he said.
Steck said that kind of talk bolstered his point: that the property was being unfairly targeted as a political move.
“He appears to be motivated by ‘I’m going to use this situation to shut down these protesters,’” Steck said of Auke. “It’s gotta be the most novel use of an easement claim I’ve ever heard of.”
“We’re perfectly happy to litigate that on the merits,” Steck said. “Let’s just make it an easement claim, and stop the cowboy policing.”