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Line 3 Opponents Allege ‘Blockade’ of Camp in Property Dispute

Northern Minnesota sheriffs' offices have blocked a route to a major protest camp, citing a 1928 tax forfeiture.

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.” 

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Aukes denied that the trail closure was a “blockade,” saying that the property’s occupants could enter or leave by other routes in vehicles or on foot. A photo with about 20 officers on the driveway or trail, he said, was taken out of context. “That happened when a mob of alleged water protectors started to surround officers that were at the scene,” he said. “A convoy of vehicles tried to force their way in past the vehicles — one of them actually struck an officer and bumped them with the vehicle, and that’s when we got other officers in.” 

He agreed that the law enforcement presence was unusual for an easement dispute, but said there was more at play. “If this was just a simple easement dispute, we ... probably would not even have law enforcement officers there,” he said. “We’re dealing with masses causing hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damage to Enbridge equipment. We’re dealing with anarchy in different areas of the county. These people are coming in and out of this camp.” 

As for the process, Aukes said, his office did it by-the-book. “I served the notice, and because there is no legal access in the property, the Hubbard County land use ordinance does prohibit using it,” he said. “We began enforcing the ordinance after a notice was given, and people continued to drive on it.” 

Attorney Mara Verheyden-Hilliard of the Center for Protest Law and Litigation, who also represents the plaintiffs, said she was concerned about the incentives driving Auke’s decisions. “The sheriff’s departments in northern Minnesota are getting funding from the Enbridge pipeline company,” she said. “All their action and time suppressing water protectors and protesters is reimbursable.” 

Verheyden-Hilliard was referencing a public safety escrow trust fund the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission required Enbridge to establish as part of the permitting process, with the stated purpose of combatting increases to drug and sex trafficking common along pipeline construction routes. She said the fund was serving as a perverse incentive for law enforcement to increase the severity of their tactics against protesters. 

“Enbridge has poured more than a million dollars into it, and the sheriff’s departments send their invoices,” she said. “Including huge amounts of overtime, which means these individual officers, along with the departments overall, are being financially incentivized to take these unlawful actions.” 

Aukes disputed that. “There’s no incentive whatsoever for us to increase our patrols of the Enbridge Line 3 project at all — we’re not making money off of any of this,” he said. The fund was mandated by the state to pay for the enforcement of state laws, he said, and that’s how he was using it. 

“Enbridge is willing to pay it, and I’m going to take their money when the time comes,” he said. “The Hubbard County taxpayers shouldn’t have to be saddled with this extra expense. Enbridge should.”

Enbridge spokeswoman Juli Kellner wrote in an email Saturday morning that protests of the pipeline’s construction had been cause for growing concern. 

“Our first priority is the safety of all involved — our workers, men and women in law enforcement and the protestors themselves,” Kellner wrote. “As a company, we recognize the rights of individuals and groups to express their views legally and peacefully, but we will not tolerate illegal and unsafe acts.  Now we are seeing a marked increase in violence and illegal activity from protesters who have attempted to physically block workers from safely leaving work sites where protests have occurred.” 

She cited an incident at the Two Inlets pump station near Itasca State Park, where protesters occupied a work site and locked themselves to equipment early in June.

“Hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage was done to contractor equipment there, including that of Gordon Construction,” she wrote, name-checking a tribal contractor from the White Earth Nation. 

Aukes also said Switchboard, as the new owners, had an opportunity to prevent the situation. 

“The owners of this property are not here. We’ve never cited or arrested the owners of this property. The owners are based out of Texas,” he said. "And when you go to their website, you will see they are about training, basically ... civil disobedience, resisting the police. They’re a self-proclaimed ... anarchy group, right on their website,”

The group’s website was not accessible at time of publication. 

“We’re not keeping those people off of their land. If they wanted guests to come, maybe they should have done what Winona LaDuke did and get an easement," Aukes added.

Verheyden-Hilliard said Aukes’ approach was disingenuous. “It has nothing to do with an issue of county property and everything to do with an effort to harass and disrupt people,” she said. What he’s created here is a de facto open-air prison, where people cannot come and go in this rural area in their vehicles.”

Disrupting access to food and water on a property with no well, she said, was “creating a dangerous situation.” 

“You simply just can’t lock people in on their private property. If this was a private landowner who suddenly stopped you from being able to leave your land, or take in water, action would be taken immediately,” she said. “And here, it’s a sheriff’s department with weapons, and people, and guns, and cars, and power to take criminal action.” 

A representative for Enbridge did not respond to a request for comment. Nor did Hubbard County Land Commissioner Mark Lohmeier, who signed a notice prohibiting travel over the easement and is named as a co-defendant.

Hubbard County Land Commissioner Mark Lohmeier, who signed a notice prohibiting travel over the easement and is named as a co-defendant in the lawsuit, did not respond to a request for comment.

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