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

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.

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.

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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.

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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.


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