By Shawn Perich
Woodie Guthrie kinda had it right. This land is your land when it is owned by the public. But even public land is owned by some government entity. In the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, your land is mostly owned by the federal government as part of the Superior National Forest–but not all of it. The State of Minnesota has owned property in the Boundary Waters since before the area was designated wilderness.
Minnesota has approximately 83,000 acres of School Trust lands inside the wilderness. This is problematic for the state, because School Trust properties are supposed to generate revenue for the School Trust. Most often these revenues are collected from mining royalties or timber sales. Logging and mining aren’t allowed in wilderness areas.
From the state’s perspective, School Trust lands “locked up” in the wilderness have no value. The state has long sought to trade its BWCAW School Trust lands for federally owned Superior National Forest lands located outside the wilderness. The state could then generate revenue for the School Trust off the exchanged lands from logging and possibly mining.
Past attempts at making a land exchange have been met with opposition from environmentalists and obstinacy from the Range delegation of state legislators. Environmentalists say that exchanging BWCAW School Trust lands for acres outside the wilderness will lead to unwanted logging, mining or lakeshore development.
Iron Range politicians, on the other hand, want to see an equal value land exchange, so the School Trust gets the most revenue-producing land possible. During the latter years of longtime Congressman Jim Oberstar’s tenure, the state turned down an exchange that involved trading a portion of the School Trust lands for federal land outside the wilderness. However, the deal called for a federal purchase of most BWCAW School Trust lands. Because it wasn’t a purely land for land exchange, state politicians nixed the deal.
Now, nearly two decades later, a similar proposal is in the offing. The Forest Service is holding public open houses to gather public input on a proposed land exchange/purchase of BWCAW School Trust lands. In 2010, the Minnesota Legislature’s Permanent School Trust Fund Advisory Committee appointed a working group to recommend a land exchange. In 2012, the Legislature passed legislation to expedite the exchange process. Later that year, the DNR commissioner made a formal proposal for the exchange to the Superior National Forest supervisor. After an initial feasibility analysis, the Superior National Forest received approval from the regional forest in Milwaukee to move forward with the process.
Simply put, the first phase of the proposed project will include trading approximately 30,000 acres of School Trust lands within the BWCAW for national forest lands of equal value outside of the wilderness selected from a pool of approximately 39,000 acres. In the second phase of the project, the federal government will purchase the remaining 53,000 acres of School Trust lands in the BWCAW. The land exchange is likely to occur first, because Congress must appropriate the money for the purchase. And these days, Congress has trouble getting much of anything done.
First, however, the proposal must go through a federal environmental review to determine if there are any concerns regarding the national forest lands proposed for the exchange. Public comments are being sought now, with a deadline of April 3. The comments will be evaluated by the Forest Service to identify environmental issues. Once completed, the environmental analysis will be available for public review and comment. Any party that submits written comments and is dissatisfied with the outcome can submit an objection to the project.
All bureaucratic wrangling aside, it’s important to note what the exchange proposal is and isn’t. First, the exchange won’t result in a net loss of public lands, because the trade is from one public entity to another. Much of the federal land proposed for exchange lies outside the boundary of the Superior National Forest in the Kabetogama Purchase Unit on the northwestern side of the forest and the Pigeon River Purchase Unit on the eastern side. Most of the federal lands are mixed among state holdings, so the trade will make for more efficient land management.
While the state owns lakeshore lands in the BWCAW, very little national forest lakeshore lands are proposed for the trade. Also, mineral rights are not changing hands in the exchange, so the state isn’t likely to gain additional lands for mining. On nearly all of the federal land proposed for exchange, the mineral rights were already severed from the surface rights many years ago.
The state lands in the BWCAW that are proposed for federal purchase were determined by state and federal geologists to be lands with potentially high mineral value. The federal government intends to acquire the mineral rights to the state lands it purchases. The feds are working with the state to determine how this will occur. The purchase of mineral rights could add to the sale price and benefit the School Trust.
The primary economic use of the federal lands acquired by the School Trust in the exchange will be forest management and harvest. The environmental analysis will evaluate how the state is likely to use the lands it acquires and if the lands will look different under state ownership. When selecting potential lands for the exchange, the working group’s goal was to minimize controversy. They avoided parcels in in specially designated areas such as the wild and scenic corridor along the edge of the BWCAW, roadless areas and state parks.
We’ll have to wait and see whether the project avoids controversy. If Boundary Waters history is our guide, it probably will not. Yet the fact that the recommendations were developed by a state and federal working group, plus the active involvement of the Legislature suggest that this attempt to resolve the School Trust lands issue may have a better chance for success than previous efforts.