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Proposed north country land exchange is contrary to Minnesotans’ best interests

Source: Legislative Commission on Minnesota​ ​Resources
The DNR has selected the land within St. Louis, Cook, and Lake counties that it wishes to have removed from Superior National Forest and turned over to state management for maximum natural resource exploitation and revenue.

A proposed school trust land exchange has surfaced once again. This exchange is contrary to the best interests of the citizens of Minnesota and the nation; it would result in the loss of portions of the existing Superior National Forest in order to subject that land to intensive mining, logging and leasing.

Approximately 86,000 acres of state school trust and Swamp Land Act lands lie within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA). Since Boundary Waters permit fees have not been shared with the school trust, the lands are not producing money for the schools.

In 1881, an amendment to the state constitution allowed swamplands to be sold and the proceeds placed in a permanent school trust fund. This departure from the terms of the swampland grant were apparently never questioned or challenged by Congress (Minnesota Historical Society archives). Over one-quarter of the state lands within the BWCA are Swamp Act lands (23,000 acres). Today, swamplands are known for their ability to filter and absorb water, and sequester carbon and mercury. The BWCA and Superior National Forest lands are known for their pristine waters, scenic beauty, recreational value, unique boreal forests and wildlife habitat; as federal lands, they were set aside as a public heritage.

When the boundaries of the wilderness were drawn under the 1978 Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act (Public Law 95-495), a state and federal partnership formed whereby the state retained jurisdiction over the waters in the wilderness, continued to hold approximately 112,000 acres of land (some of it school trust land) and retained all of its mineral rights. Since the water and mineral rights of the state lands within the BWCA will continue to belong to the state, and since not all of the lands are school trust lands, the exchange would not consolidate federal holdings in the BWCA, as the Forest Service states as a reason for the exchange. 

State political momentum, spearheaded by Iron Range legislators, has continued to advocate for the exchange of state lands from within the BWCA for federal acreage in the bordering Superior National Forest. Once land is removed from wilderness protections and transferred to the state, it can be aggressively managed in an attempt to generate money for the school trust. Yet even while the proposed land exchange is open for scoping comments, Iron Range legislators have attached an amendment to the state omnibus environmental bill that would allow the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to negotiate lower lease payments on school trust lands in order to subsidize the faltering taconite industry. This would lower payments to the school fund from any mining occurring on school trust lands

The current trust land exchange proposal would swap about 30,000 acres of Superior National Forest land. This would leave the door open for future negotiations involving the remaining acreage in the BWCA. Additionally, mineral rights, by state law, cannot be exchanged, so trust fund minerals would be held within the wilderness — potentially generating further controversial deals to compensate for the value of the minerals.

In 1997, the entire Minnesota federal legislative delegation sent a letter to the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture requesting an allocation of funds to initiate a complete purchase of state school trust lands held within the BWCA. However, this attempt was scuttled by the state Iron Range legislative delegation, who wanted a land exchange. To summarize the position of the Iron Range legislators, in the 2012 reprisal of the land swap issue, Rep. David Dill stated “… we should mine, log, and lease the hell out of that land that we get in the change.”

Permanent School Fund details

According to the Enabling Act of 1857, two sections of each township were granted for the use of schools, primarily as school location sites. The majority of Minnesota school trust lands were sold for urbanization or farming by 1900. Money from those sales became part of the Permanent School Fund (PSF). If the 1997 BWCA purchase process had been started, those additional funds would now be sitting in the PSF, generating interest income. In 2003, the University of Minnesota-Duluth estimated the value of the trust lands within the BWCA at $72.3 million.

Interest from the PSF currently supplies about $28 per Minnesota pupil per year, while state/local/federal funding provides approximately $10,000 per pupil. The northern part of Minnesota is the only area of the state that has retained its school trust lands. Legislation was passed in 2012 to more intensively develop those lands for the school trust. However, the Minnesota constitution does not require that land be managed for maximum return — only that the PSF be managed in that manner.

DNR exchange proposal

The DNR has selected the land within St. Louis, Cook, and Lake counties that it wishes to have removed from Superior National Forest and turned over to state management for maximum natural resource exploitation and revenue, as displayed in maps for the land exchange scoping process. Lands removed from Superior National Forest would be removed from many federal protections. These include Weeks Act and other Act provisions that protect the headwaters of rivers and watersheds, and prohibit open pit strip mining, such as that being proposed by PolyMet. (Hence the need for PolyMet’s land exchange for its open pit mine.)

Specific land chosen by the DNR for this proposed exchange, by removing federal protections, would facilitate a controversial future open pit mining operation at Teck Cominco’s Mesaba Deposit, located between the proposed PolyMet and Twin Metals projects. The permitting of expansive mining would result in a massive open pit sulfide mine zone that would change the landscape and impact the water quality of both the BWCA and the Lake Superior watershed — into perpetuity. Whether or not these proposed mine operations would provide money for the school trust would depend upon volatile market conditions, and whether the mineral rights are owned by the state or by private interests. Private mineral interests do not contribute to the school trust fund; PolyMet’s proposed project would not contribute to the trust.

Other impacts

Other portions of the proposed exchange could include leasing for mineral exploration, or land that could be available for disposal of waste rock or tailings from existing taconite operations. Additional portions could open new areas to more intense logging, for experimental bio-fuel proposals, or to other types of development. These are areas that currently host camping, hiking, canoeing, and hunting opportunities, or border recreational lakes or private real estate (cabins and homes).

The exchange could also have an impact on wildlife habitat and corridors, and may affect species such as the endangered Canada lynx, the threatened northern long-eared bat, moose, and wolf populations, along with other iconic wildlife, bird, and plant species. All in all, the proposed land exchange would facilitate mining and logging operations at the expense of the Arrowhead’s legacy of forests and wildlife, clean water and air.

While money to augment education is always welcome, the PSF will obviously never underwrite our state’s educational system. Instead the proposed land exchange would destroy a natural public heritage in order to facilitate mining proposals that would pollute the water and air with sulfates, mercury, particulate matter, and toxic heavy metals. Not only do these pollutants contaminate fish and destroy wild rice, they also impact the health of all children growing up in this area.

Political impetus is seeking to squeeze every penny’s worth of resources out of northeast Minnesota in a misguided mission to save our schools. If the proposed land exchange facilitates the opening of a sulfide mine district in what is now Superior National Forest, perpetual mining pollution cleanup costs that fall upon the public will far exceed any contributions to the PSF. Nor is anyone considering the long-term impacts to our water and to our children.

What you can do: Tell the Forest Service to reject the BWCA land exchange. You can find an action alert and more information at Save Our Sky Blue Waters. You can also go here. Scoping Comments are requested by Friday, May 15. If you wish to submit a comment directly to the Forest Service, please send it to Peter Taylor: prtaylor@fs.fed.us.

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

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 05/14/2015 - 05:32 pm.

    The DNR is impossibly conflicted in its dual roles.

    See http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/aboutdnr/mission.html to read the DNR’s mission statement.

    The excerpts below illustrate – when contrasted with the DNR’s obligations to “conserve” and “protect” our natural resources – just how difficult this is, by the very nature of the conflicting roles:

    “…providing other economic opportunities in a manner consistent with sound natural resource conservation and management principles.”

    “…to provide for commercial uses of natural resources in a way that creates a sustainable quality of life.”

    Converting these lands for the purpose of promoting sulfide mining is not consistent with conservation nor a sustainable quality of life.

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