(CN) - Utility companies do need an Indian tribe's permission to build a high-voltage transmission line that bisects the boundaries of their reservation, a Minnesota federal judge ruled.
In 2009, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission granted a certificate of need for power companies to build a line from Bemidji to Grand Rapids that would "restore reliable utility services to the region."
The Commission issued a permit for the placement of the line, which "bisects the historical eastern and western exterior boundaries of the Leech Lake Reservation, but does not cross over any tribal trust lands." The Bureau of Indian Affairs confirmed that the route "does not affect" the lands.
Nevertheless, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, a member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, fought the project, claiming it would disrupt their hunting, fishing and gathering rights.
The tribe asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service and Chippewa National Forest office to revoke the easement, and filed a petition with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission to revoke the route permit.
This petition claimed that the Ojibwe has regulatory authority over the utilities, which must obtain the tribe's consent to build within its reservation's historic boundaries.
The Ojibwe also demanded as much in a "Tribal Court complaint" served to the utility companies.
In a June 22 ruling, United States District Judge Donovan W. Frank granted a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunctive relief to Otter Tail Power, Minnetonka Power Cooperative, Minnesota Power, Northern States Power and Great River Energy.
Frank found "that the Tribe has no regulatory jurisdiction over the project based on federal law," and that the tribe "failed to demonstrate" that their hunting, fishing and gathering rights "will rise to a level of disruption that will imperil the subsistence of the Tribe's community."
He added that "permitting the Tribe to assert authority" over this project "would ultimately affect the [companies] ability to meet the needs of its electric service customers in the area."
Construction is scheduled to begin in June or July 2011 and has a 2012 deadline for completion.