SLOAN, Iowa | Stands of trees and marshy grass cover sandy dunes along government-owned land adjacent to sections of the Missouri River known as Winnebago Bend and Snyder Bend.
In the fall, the areas attract countless flocks of ducks, which in turn attract hundreds of hunters who buy state permits to hunt on the public land.
Many of those same hunters tromp through the vegetation hoping to bag a deer. In the spring, it's mushroom lovers who scour these wild areas that resemble river habitat that became rare after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers channelized the Missouri River, straightening it out from its former meandering ways.
The 1,643 acres of land -- most of it in Woodbury County except for a sliver that crosses into Monona County -- would remain that way, say Winnebago Tribe members and representatives who are seeking the return of the land parcels that once belonged to them. Earlier this month, U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, whose district includes the land at issue, introduced legislation to have the land, currently owned by the Corps of Engineers, transferred to the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs to be held in trust for the tribe.
Despite rumors of development of a golf course or other amenities on the land, tribal members say the parcels, once a part of their reservation, will remain as the wildlife areas that so many people enjoy.
"We're going to use it for the same purposes that it's been used for, and that's wildlife management," tribal councilman Isaac Smith said. "These hunters that are worried about it, they don't have anything to worry about."
Those concerned about the possible land transfer want written guarantees that the land will remain wild and not be developed.
"All that area that is now open to the public for hunting needs to remain as such and that includes management," said Bill Smith, president of the Missouri Valley Waterfowlers Association, which supports restoration and management of waterfowl resources. "What one individual intends or says they're not going to do, unless it's in writing, I don't buy into it at all."
The land in question lies near the Winnebago Tribe's WinnaVegas Casino near Sloan. One of the parcels is west and southwest of the casino along the Missouri River's Winnebago Bend. The second area is northwest of the casino along Snyder Bend.
As is often the case when tribal ownership of land is questioned, the issue dates back long before many of the current players were born.
When the Winnebago Indian Reservation was established in 1865 in northeast Nebraska, its eastern boundary was the Missouri River. As it often did before channelization, the river changed course, leaving some of the Winnebago land on the Iowa side of the river.
In the 1970s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers condemned parcels of Winnebago land along the river in both Iowa and Nebraska for a planned recreation project. To make a long story of lawsuits and appeals short, the tribe won a federal court decision in Nebraska that stopped the condemnation there, the court finding that federal law required that any acquisition of the tribe's land must be done through a formal act of Congress.
A federal court in Iowa found that while the land there had been illegally taken by the corps, the tribe had failed to preserve its right to appeal an earlier court decision and the statute of limitations had run out.
In the past 20 years, the tribe began working with the corps for the return of the land, said Danelle Smith, general counsel for the tribe. The only remedy, they discovered, was congressional action.
"We've met with both the Iowa and Nebraska delegations, and Rep. King has been very supportive of the tribe's effort," Smith said.
On Sept. 8, King introduced H.R. 3688, which would provide for the transfer of the land. The bill was cosponsored by Rod Blum, R-Iowa, and Nebraska Republicans Jeff Fortenberry and Don Bacon. It's been assigned to the House Committee on Natural Resources. Hearings have yet to be scheduled.
On Wednesday, King said his bill would return land that was illegally taken from the tribe, and that the government should respect the terms of the original treaty it signed with the Winnebago people.
"The Corps of Engineers essentially concedes that the process they used doesn't hold up in court," King said. "I think the true, right and just thing to do is honor the treaty."
King's office issued a press release announcing the bill at the time it was introduced, including a statement that the Corps of Engineers and the boards of supervisors in both Woodbury and Monona counties supported it.
The announcement caught Woodbury County officials off guard.
"We were never contacted," county board chairman Matthew Ung said.
Since then, Ung said, he has heard from several hunters concerned about losing access to the popular hunting ground. Woodbury County Conservation Board director Rick Schneider will present information about the issue to the board at its regular meeting Tuesday. It's expected that many hunters may be in attendance at the meeting in the Woodbury County Courthouse basement.
Ung said he is scheduled to meet with tribal representatives next month.
"We'll hear both sides," Ung said, adding that he has no position on the issue because he has yet to learn all the details. There's likely little the county can do, he said, because it's a matter of federal legislation.
After meeting with tribal officials in April, the Monona County Board of Supervisors wrote a letter saying it had no opposition to the land transfer.
The corps does not comment on pending legislation, said Steve Kopecky, executive director of the corps' Northwest Regional Integration Team.
Hunters have plenty of comments about the transfer. By agreement with the Corps of Engineers, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources has managed both areas in question for years. The DNR controls weeds, maintains access points, seeds grass and burns overgrowth.
Hunters want the land to remain that way, but King's legislation provides no information about what the land would be used for. Many believe the tribe intends to develop the land into an 18-hole golf course, Bill Smith said, eliminating one of the area's best waterfowl habitat areas that for years has been maintained using the fees hunters pay for hunting licenses.
"We have a very specific interest because we have invested resources in it," he said. "We don't have a whole lot of habitat in the Missouri River valley left."
King said he has been told by the tribe that it will remain a wildlife area.
"The discussions I've had with them is they're going to leave it open. If I thought they were going to close it down, I'd think about it differently," King said.
Matt Eide, a Des Moines lobbyist hired by the tribe, said there are no plans to develop the land.
"There has been no discussion whatsoever to develop the land, and most of it is not developable land," Eide said of the flood-prone tracts.
Because the land transfer would be between two federal agencies, the DNR has no say in the matter, said Bruce Trautman, the agency's deputy director. The DNR has met with the tribe and offered to continue managing the two areas, he said.
"We're still very much interested in working with the tribe in management of that land," Trautman said.
The tribe welcomes the offer, Isaac Smith said.
"If the Iowa DNR wants to help with management, that's kudos to them," he said. "We're always willing to work together with something like that."
If the transfer is completed, the tribe plans to continue to allow hunting on the property, Smith said. The only difference would be that hunters would need to buy a hunting permit from the tribe instead of the DNR.
The ultimate issue, he said, is not hunting, but seeing the land returned to its rightful owner.
"All we're asking is for that land to be returned to the tribe," he said.