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Exchanging school trust lands isn’t ‘for the sake of our children’

CHISHOLM, Minn. – Whenever an issue becomes center stage at the Minnesota Legislature, citizens should be alert to a hidden political agenda. During the current session, legislation is being considered to maximize revenue from school trust lands by expediting a land exchange (HF2207/SF1857) and creating a legislative commission to replace Department of Natural Resources (DNR) management of the trust lands (HF2244/SF1889, HF1353/SF1152, HF0435/SF0810).

When Minnesota became a state in 1858, sections 16 and 36 of every township were set aside in trust for the benefit of schools. The state could use, lease or sell the land to raise money for education. A Permanent School Fund (PSF) was established, consisting of accumulated revenues from the land, with only the interest money to be used on a yearly basis.

In 1858, Minnesota had a total population of 150,000, and was two-thirds rural. Much of the trust land was sold by the mid 1880s, mostly for agriculture and development. Today approximately 2.5 million acres of trust lands remain, with a PSF of about $750 million. In an era of budget deficits, legislators are seeking to maximize revenue from our remaining trust lands to enhance funding for a largely urban school system serving more than 840,000 students.

Conflicting values

The remaining trust lands are located mainly in northeast Minnesota. Approximately 86,000 acres of state trust lands are currently locked within the borders of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA). Lands within the wilderness cannot be logged, leased or mined. Hence they are not generating money for the school trust (although states such as Montana have initiated user fees as a source of revenue on trust lands used for recreation). About 22,000 of the above acres were added to the trust under swampland designation, and were never intended to generate revenue.

These state land inholdings could be sold to the federal government, providing an immediate increase to the PSF. Moneys for the sale are available through Land and Water Conservation Funds. Such a sale fell through in the 1990s because the Iron Range delegation wanted a land exchange instead. The idea was to trade the state lands within the BWCA for federal land outside of the BWCA, with the intention of generating money for the fund through more intensive logging. The failed plan is now resurfacing.

During the interim, a rush of exploration for copper-nickel and trace metals imbedded in sulfide ores has begun on lands bordering the BWCA and underlying Superior National Forest. This time the Range delegation is promoting a land exchange in the hope of facilitating the opening of a sulfide mining district. Iron Range Rep. Tom Rukavina has predicted that the PSF could more than double over the next decade if copper mining plans proceed on trust lands (Duluth News Tribune, “Battle is on over 2.5 million acres of forest land,” Feb. 15).

During the most recent two-year cycle, PSF interest money contributed about $55 million to supplement the $15 billion K-12 education budget. This amounts to $26 per student above the more than $9,000 allotted from the general fund. In other words, doubling the trust fund revenue over the next 10 years by one-time mining of trust lands would add only $26 per student while destroying the land for any other use.

Meanwhile, 8th District U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack has announced plans to introduce legislation on the federal level. According to his press release dated Dec. 9, 2011, such legislation would authorize the exchange of approximately 86,000 acres of state lands in the BWCA for a yet-to-be-determined amount of National Forest land outside the wilderness boundary. Because land within the BWCA is considered to be of high value, the ratio of exchange would be greater than 1:1; this would significantly reduce the size of Superior National Forest, as well as impacting the watershed.

Removing land from federal ownership removes restrictions regarding mining. These include prevention of open pit strip mining under the Weeks Act, adherence to the Endangered Species Act, and compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process that includes public comment and environmental review.

Learning from the past

The mining of sulfide ores has a notorious history of leaving behind acid mine drainage and leaching of toxic heavy metals. Contamination of surface waters requires perpetual treatment, lasting hundreds to thousands of years. According to Dr. David Blowes, researcher with the University of Waterloo in Canada, all sulfide mines contaminate the groundwater.

The mining of highly disseminated low-grade ores leaves a huge footprint on the landscape. Ninety-nine percent of the rock would end up as waste material. The scale of mining makes it virtually impossible to prevent contamination of the environment. Once mined, the resulting pits, waste rock piles, and tailings basins remain unusable.

Taconite mining is currently leaving its own footprint (25 percent iron, 75 percent waste rock), while polluting the waterways with mercury, sulfates and metals. Although there are no available solutions for clean-up of the St. Louis River watershed, the Range delegation continues to promote more mining.

Who is educating our legislators?

Legislators press for maximizing revenues from school trust lands while ignoring the health impacts of the mining industry. Mercury, which is released from both taconite and power plants, affects fetal brain development. Pregnant women and young children are advised not to eat fish from waters where mercury has accumulated in the food chain. Dust and airborne fibers from mining contribute to asthma, allergies, and cancers. The health of the children and families of northeast Minnesota is being sacrificed in exchange for mining royalties.

In addition, sulfates leaching from tailings basins, while contributing to the methylation of mercury, also greatly diminish the growth and vitality of the wild rice stands.

Legislators are also ignoring history. The lands of Superior National Forest were set aside for watershed protection and the benefit of all citizens of this country. Superior National Forest and the BWCA serve as a legacy of our nation’s past, and are areas of biodiversity, wildlife habitat, and recreational opportunity for all, including future generations.

Legislators are using their political influence to convince educators and school boards that it is in the best interest of our children to convert trust fund lands into a mining district. When those with good intentions fail to educate themselves beyond mining company propaganda, future generations pay the price — loss of a healthy environment. Political and educational leaders are not modeling what we strive to teach our students:  to base their conclusions upon critical thinking.

For the sake of our children

Historically, our nation has valued education as the bedrock of society. If the state of Minnesota truly values public education, we need to prioritize educational spending within the general budget.

Logging and mining are cyclical industries. No one can accurately predict the economics of logging or mining over the next decades. Mining is dependent on controversial extraction of oil, gas, and coal resources, as well as fluctuations in demand. There is no clear indication that citizens of this state and country will allow turning Superior National Forest into a mining district.

How much time and energy has been spent trying to identify land for an exchange, and preparing legislation to create a new commission that would only result in more bureaucracy and paperwork? There is a simpler solution:  a total land sale would immediately generate funds for the PSF, benefiting both the children of today and of the future, without harming the environment.

We cannot allow political rhetoric to use “for the sake of our children” as an excuse to sacrifice our health, our water and our land. Turning parts of Superior National Forest over to the state to maximize logging and mining would destroy the natural inheritance entrusted to us by past generations. Generating extra education money for one generation of children at the expense of future generations is a travesty of the trust our children place in us.

Elanne Palcich, a retired elementary school teacher, lives in Chisholm, Minn.


Write your reaction to this piece in Comments below. Or consider submitting your own Community Voices commentary; for information, email Susan Albright

Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Rod Loper on 03/08/2012 - 08:14 am.

    Not to be trusted.

    Whenever you hear rhetoric like “is all about the children”, I sense greed. Like the effort this session to put permits on a fast track, the motives are clear when you look to the area around
    th BWCA.

  2. Submitted by rolf westgard on 03/08/2012 - 12:38 pm.

    Hysteria reigns on the Range

    Once again hysteria reigns to cloud the issues in Range mining.
    The proposed land exchange is a common practice for the US Forest service(FS). Here Polymet owns the mineral rights on this state land where the Forest Service has the surface rights. The FS will trade those rights for large tracts of other land which it can add to the Superior National Forest. The former lands are going to be mined, so nothing is really lost to the public and new public lands are gained and schools win.
    As to the additional financial benefit to Minnesota schools which this article dismisses, they are substantial. Under the state Constitution, income from school trust lands is earmarked for the Permanent School Fund, which contributes about $60 per pupil to every school district. An analysis by the MN Department of Natural Resources projected that the school fund, with assets of $720 million, could more than triple in size with the copper royalties over 25 to 30 years from the new mining projects. And those new financial assets are permanent with income which goes on indefinitely after mining operations have ceased.
    It’s “not all about the children”. It’s about mining a major asset, creating thousands of jobs, acquiring big tax revenues, and adding big bucks in permanent assets to the PSF.

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 03/08/2012 - 12:28 pm.

      Not so fast

      “The former lands are going to be mined…”? Now, hold the parade for just a minute.

      Correct me if I’m wrong, but as of approximately a month ago, the permiting process Polymet must pursue to begin the mining is far from complete, as they have delayed the environmental review, even though they’ve been at it for 3 years or so:

      Also, the success of Polymet’s effort is far from certain. See

      “Agencies are preparing a Supplemental DEIS, expected in the autumn of 2012. It will include responses to the unprecedented 3,700+ public and agency comments submitted by February 3, 2010. It will be expanded to include the impacts of the proposed land exchange with the U.S. Forest Service. And it will include the U.S. EPA, which has authority for compliance with federal Clean Water Act, as a cooperating agency.”

      So, first of all, the foundation necessary to your argument is not satisfied – Polymet may never mine these lands. I realize there are a number of cheerleaders for this mining. But I’m sure you see that if this sulfide mining in northern Minnesota were a done deal, they’d be doing it already rather than going through a several year permitting process – in part due to a vigorous opposition.

      Secondly, your summary in your last sentence addresses nothing whatever of a significant issue on the minds of many Minnesotans – the environmental losses and costs. Your final sentence is based on the pretense there is no cost.

  3. Submitted by Nancy Gibson on 03/08/2012 - 12:41 pm.

    School Land Exchange

    First it’s jobs now it’s children. What will the legislators think of next to destroy our northern natural resources? Just read this from Rep. Dill from Ely, “Lets get this done so we can mine, log and develop the hell out of it.” At least he is honest about his feelings. However feelings and reality are at odds. Sulfide mining is by far the most devastating outcome for the northeast forestland and our precious waters. Clean water has never survived sulfide mining and there is no reason to make Minnesota another location for the empty sales job of foreign companies. Children, teachers and Minnesotan should be beware of this new tactic.

  4. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 03/08/2012 - 01:17 pm.

    I don’t trust it either

    My state senator tried to sell it to me with “it’s for the children.” I didn’t buy it and now that I’ve read the bill, I am certain that it’s a recipe for disaster as far as the quality and maintenance of those lands go for a short term blip in the educational budget. I can see that the bill is set up more to provide members of the newly created board the opportunity to profit while developing the land.

  5. Submitted by rolf westgard on 03/08/2012 - 06:05 pm.

    sulfide hysteria reigns

    These comments are similar to those about the Keystone XL pipeline which describe the Alberta oil sands region as a kind of moonscape wasteland devoid of its forests. Our amateur geologists are ready to tell Alberta how to manage its lands and waters.
    Albertans love their lands and waters, and they are capable of guarding those assets without our help. Alberta’s government monitors all aspects of oil sands production. The province of Alberta has 147,000 square miles of boreal forest. A total area of 1,850 square miles is set aside for oil sands surface mining. As of January, just 275 square miles have been disturbed. Producers are required to restore disturbed land and make deposits to a fund guaranteeing restoration. That fund now totals $900 million.  Water usage is limited by a law requiring that existing and approved oil projects may not use more than a total of 3 percent of the annual average flow of the Athabasca River, the primary area water source. Water in the region is continually monitored to assure that it meets Alberta’s strong standards for toxins.
    Minnesotas agencies are also perfectly capable of monitoring these new mining projects on the Range without assistance from arm chair managers in St Paul.

  6. Submitted by C.A. Arneson on 03/19/2012 - 05:12 pm.

    School Trust Lands Legislation betrays trust

    For anyone who has any doubt about why the School Trust Lands have become embroiled with the metallic sulfide mining issue Rep. David Dill has set everyone straight.

    “That land in the wilderness should belong to the federal government,” Dill said. “We should do it in accordance with the constitution, and then we should mine, log, and lease the hell out of that land that we get in the change.” (MPR)

    The first half of his statement I agree with, the land should belong to the federal government. The federal government needs to pay for it and the money needs to go into the School Trust Fund. Money up front and earning interest through solid investments is the most secure financial legacy for our children. The purchase price would come from federal funds set aside that must be spent on conservation acquisitions, money that is available now.

    The second half of Rep. Dill’s statement, which I am sure is his honest opinion, is beyond belief when coming from someone in the Legislature. “We should mine, log, and lease the hell out of that land,” not only shows exactly what the driving force is behind the push for a land exchange, it also shows just what kind of legacy an exchange would leave our children. Have we not learned anything about the definition of speculation in the last five years? This country found out the hard way about get-rich-quick schemes, investors, financial institutions, and corporations that care for little else but their own financial gains.

    Now it appears there are those who want to subject our children to the same victimization by gambling with their future. Income on any land exchanged would be purely speculative. What would be left of those lands for future generations, future investments in that land, if sulfide mining becomes the choice? “Lease the hell out of it,” is as good a way to put it as any. Nothing.

    Someone had the unmitigated gall to title their misrepresented legislation, which they then tacked on to the House omnibus environment policy bill on March 8th, CREATION OF THE CHILDREN’S STATE FOREST.

    What forest are they referring to? The one that is going to be “mined, logged, and leased the hell out of?” Someone needs to remind the legislators involved that the word behind trust in School Trust Lands is entrust. This land is for our children, not a mining company. As a teacher I find it abhorrent, not only that we would use our children in such a way, but also that anyone would have the ignorance and arrogance to say they are creating a Children’s State Forest in the process.

    What are we teaching our children?

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