Northern Wilds Magazine
Points North

Points North: BWCAW Land Exchange—Another Failed Effort?

Congressman Chip Cravaack made headlines recently when the U.S. House passed his legislation authorizing a land-for-land swap between the U.S. Forest Service and the State of Minnesota for 86,000 acres of state land located within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Cravaack’s bill supports state legislation passed earlier this year which seeks to expedite a federal-state exchange and thus make more land available for mining and lakeshore development. Attempting to remove state land from the BWCAW is not a new issue. Northern Minnesota lawmakers have been trying to accomplish a land swap since the Boundary Waters became a wilderness area in 1978. Their motive is valid. Most of the lands in question are state School Trust lands. Since mining, logging and lakeshore development are not allowed in the wilderness, the lands do not generate revenue for the trust.

Past efforts to complete an exchange have been unsuccessful, in no small part due to northern legislators’ insistence on a land-for-land swap, rather than a combination of purchase and exchange, which is the standard policy of the U.S. Forest Service. In the past, the biggest conservation worry was the state would gain undeveloped lakeshore in the deal and promptly sell it to developers. This time around, environmentalists worry the state is simply trying to acquire land to expand mining.

Cravaack and other proponents of the land-for-land exchange say their efforts are “for the children,” because possible new mining, land sale and logging revenues would go to the state’s School Trust. They also say the exchange is a win-win, because it doesn’t affect the wilderness and increases development potential in northern Minnesota. Both claims are true, but this doesn’t mean the exchange will be a win-win for everyone. The first hint of trouble is that Cravaack’s legislation exempts the swap from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), because an environmental review might delay the exchange. At least, that’s what proponents are saying.

Other losers may be the small school districts in Lake and Cook counties, which will not receive federal in-lieu-of-tax payments for the exchanged lands due to another Cravaack exemption. The congressman defends the exemption by saying it keeps the exchange revenue neutral for the federal government and that all schools will benefit from the monies generated for the School Trust. However, it is highly unlikely the School Trust will suddenly become a horn of plenty or that small northern school districts will see any appreciable increase in state funding as a result of the exchange.

The biggest losers will be northern Minnesota property owners, hunters, anglers and others who appreciate and use the Superior National Forest. Outside the wilderness, 86,000 thousand acres of land that has been in stable federal ownership will suddenly change hands.

The new owner, the State of Minnesota, may not prove to be a good neighbor. If you have a cabin on a lake which has national forest land along the shoreline, expect to see it sold and subdivided if it suddenly becomes state school trust land. Folks who have bought property adjacent to the national forest and hunters who use national forest lands may find the state has different priorities than the Forest Service, like mining development.

Of course, this is a worst case scenario and is based on the assumption Cravaack’s bill will be passed by the Senate and signed by the President. So far, Minnesota senators Klobuchar and Franken haven’t said much other than they support some form of land swap.

Given we are less than two months from the election, it seems unlikely a companion exchange bill will rush through the Senate. However, the pre-election passage by the House ensures Cravaack has something he can use to woo some—certainly not all—northern voters.

Only time will tell if Cravaack emerges as the champion of a land exchange over 30 years in the making or if his attempt at a land-for-land swap fails like previous attempts. If BWCAW history is any guide, another failure is likely. In recent years, the Forest Service has been working through a BWCAW land exchange with the state and northern counties. The process was based on a land-for-land swap that provided public benefits and protected public land, as well as an outright purchase of most nonfederal lands through a fair appraisal process. Northern Minnesota politicians instead chose to fight the federal government and attempt to ramrod their all-or-nothing land-for-land swap through Congress.

They say doing that same thing time and again while expecting a different outcome is the definition of insanity. If that’s true, then northern Minnesota politicians are…sadly predictable. While they claim to be attempting this swap for the good of Minnesota’s school children, whether they fail or succeed it is the kids who will come out losers. With failure, the BWCAW land exchange will return to the back burner and the School Trust won’t gain a multi-million dollar shot of cash from a federal land purchase. If they win, the kids will lose again, because public lakeshores and forests—their legacy—will be sold and developed for short-term gains.

If northern Minnesota politicians bungle yet another chance to get the state’s land out of the Boundary Waters, we all lose. First, we’ve wasted years of effort and untold tax money on a failed attempt to bully the federal government. Second, the state is still stuck with land in the BWCAW, meaning the issue doesn’t go away. If that happens, hopefully we’ll have a little time to improve northern Minnesota’s political gene pool before making another run at the exchange. We can cross our fingers and hope political insanity isn’t hereditary.

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