And the land exchange debate continues...
Marshall Helmberger

We’re going to sorely miss having Tom Rukavina in St. Paul, so I’m glad that we can continue to look forward to his (hopefully) regular contributions to our editorial pages— even when I don’t agree with him, as was the case last week.

As Tom and I have both recognized, while we like to debate our differences, we’re usually in full agreement on 95 percent of issues. Of course it’s those differences that keep life interesting, so the debate goes on over the issue of BWCAW land exchange legislation.

In his letter last week, Tom posed some questions, so I’d first like to answer them to the best of my knowledge. His questions are as follows, and are repeated here in his own words:

Q: Why is open pit mining allowed in the Superior National Forest when you and your environmental friends keep referring to the Weeks Act which allegedly prohibits open pit mining in national forests?

A: The Weeks Act only applies to federally-owned lands within the national forest. As Tom is aware, there are many other ownerships, both public and private, within the boundaries of the Superior National Forest. The Weeks Act does not apply to lands owned by private individuals, private corporations, or the state or counties.

That being the case, converting federally-owned lands in the national forest to state ownership would eliminate the strip mining prohibition of the Weeks Act on those lands.

Q: What other national forest let a whole new community (Hoyt Lakes) be built inside of it? Does the Weeks Act exempt the Superior National Forest from allowing new communities to be built within its boundaries?

A: The answer to this is the same as the first question. Hoyt Lakes was built on non-federally-owned land. The Weeks Act, as such, did not apply.

The Weeks Act does apply, however, in the case of PolyMet Mining’s NorthMet deposit, much of which is currently located on federally-owned land. That’s why PolyMet is engaged in a land exchange process with the federal government. Under the current ownership, PolyMet could not strip mine the land, as company officials have proposed.

That’s one reason that environmentalists have bristled at the current land exchange legislation, which has identified more than two full townships located near Hoyt Lakes as the highest priority lands for exchange. A number of known copper-nickel deposits located in this high priority zone, including NorthMet, would shift from federal ownership to state ownership by this provision, which would eliminate the jurisdiction of the Weeks Act over any future development of these deposits. Tom would have readers believe it’s just a weird coincidence that lawmakers identified these lands for exchange, and that their known mineral resources had nothing to do with it. That’s just not credible.

Which is not to say that mining companies are necessarily supportive of the exchange, at least as proposed by lawmakers. In fact, Brad Moore, PolyMet’s Executive VP for Environmental and Governmental Affairs, recently told me that PolyMet was not aware that their lands had been identified for exchange by legislators. He said the company would definitely prefer to complete the land exchange process it already has underway with the Forest Service, rather than have that process short-circuited by the proposed legislation.

As for the mineral potential of the Mesabi Purchase Unit, Tom has now shifted his argument. In the past, he definitively stated that there was no non-ferrous mineral potential there at all. Now, he’s claiming that nothing is likely to be developed for the foreseeable future. I don’t dispute that, but it was his original claim that I disputed in my column last month, and I never suggested that mineral development there was likely any time soon.

The rest of Tom’s letter— a mix of rambling hyperbole and the usual pummeling of straw men— doesn’t require much response. Tom insinuates that anyone opposed to the latest land exchange legislation is an “environmentalist” who favors federal confiscation of state lands in the BWCAW, and wants to shut down taconite mining and logging across northeastern Minnesota and turn the entire Superior National Forest into wilderness. It’s a ridiculous claim, backed up by nothing but wind. I think Tony Sertich was right when he said the eastern-most wind turbine at Taconite Ridge only blows when Tommy’s at home— because that’s when all the hot air is emanating from Pike Township.

Whether the land exchange goes ahead as Tom proposes, or not, will have no impact whatsoever on taconite mining or logging in our region— and Tom knows it. And, whether Tom knows it or not, the exchange he supports will eliminate the very real protections of the Weeks Act on lands containing known mineral deposits in the Superior National Forest. Tom can continue to insist that these mining lands were included in the bill by accident— it’s just that no one in his or her right mind is going to believe him.

A correction

In last week’s story on the legal newspaper bids for ISD 2142, I made an error in the accompanying chart that compared the bids from the Timberjay and the Cook News Herald. When measuring the width of our standard column, I neglected to account for the fact that our legals appear in our classified section, which runs seven columns, rather than the standard six-column format in the rest of the paper. This meant that our column width should have been listed as 8.0 picas rather than 9.5.

The change does not alter the fact that the Timberjay offered the lowest bid, but it does reduce the margin of the difference. In either case, the point of the story was that the business manager had inaccurately informed the school board when she claimed the Cook News Herald bid was lower—and that point remains the same.

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4 comments on this item

I continue to strongly support the land exchange, much as I did in 1978. But for different reasons than the circus acts now taking place around the margins (and apparently being drawn into the central focus) and threaten to blow up the simple reason for the transfer. I am a simple man, the very reason I never ran for public office despite urgings. I see this as a simple exchange, to remedy the wrongs of the 78 Act, which took these lands out of production as logging was permanently banned in the BWCA. They also could not allow either outboard motor or snowmobile use because of language in the 78 law. The exchange was to free up national forest timberland for harvest, with the proceeds directed to the school trust fund in perpetuity. Granted, it is on a 60-70 year sustainable cycle, but the plan was that the lands would keep giving after all of us are long gone from the earth. Also, we felt we did not need the federal government gaining more control over the lands, since they were STATE school trust fund lands and allowed uses consistent with our culture in this area. Our feeling was the feds need not establish management practices for state lands and the only fair way to remedy the problem was an acre for acre swap. Simple as that. At now time was copper-nickel mining included in the discussion, even though we had companies like INCO and Kennecott sleeping in our woods at the time.

Now we have the Weeks Act and the copper-nickel, not to mention some convoluted funding mechanisms being forwarded by extreme environmentalists, being dragged into a simple discussion. Why didn't they advance these 34 years ago? I know why. They lie and cheat. They continue to grab, grab, and grab more and more to suit their own narrow interests. I know that. I was a party to a meeting in the Federal Building in Duluth to see where we had mutual interests that we could agree on, but the extreme environmentalists would not concede one point on outboard motors, snowmobiles and logging in the BWCA. In a nutshell...there was no compromise on their part. And our role, from their point of view, was to simply roll over and let them have all they wanted. I pointed out that was not an acceptable solution, they got mad, closed their files and left the meeting.

I don't share Marshall's view that we should allow the feds to use taxpayer money to purchase taxpayer owned state land from the state and not exchange an acre of land outside the BWCA. Marshall, upon moving up here from the big cities, found something he loved about our land and has proceeded to support banning activities on it that those of us that have lived up here all our lives and for generations before have come to form as part of our life. There comes a time to be uncompromising. If Marshall wants to take on the bully mining companies, he will find a lot of support among the people with which he lives and sells papers to. Have at it Marshall, I am and always will be, poor and a champion of the "underdog". But listen closely to your neighbors and the old timers. Rejecting the land exchange by adding "red herrings" to the debate is understandable, but after the "red herrings" are taken off the table, please do the manly thing and openly support the land exchange for the reasons I have stated previously.

About my friend Tom Rukavina. Tommy should have known about my background on this issue going back over 35 years ago. I was surprised at first, that I was not contacted to be a part of the discussion. After reading about what is coming out now about which lands to exchange and how many lands to exchange, how many to repurchase with taxpayer money and possible PolyMet monkey shining, I can see why I wasn't invited. I am an independent voice, I can't be controlled, I don't play inside baseball when I smell a rat. And I am not a Party Man, in other words do what we say for the good of the Party. Nobody can deny my driven due diligence on an issue, but sticking on principle is paramount to me. Even Marshall, when we worked on the school issue, had concerns about including me on strategy, but then he is about as equally "head strong" as I am. I think today, he realizes I offered a lot to the cause, only I refused to move in lock step on strategies I didn't agree with. And so with Tommy and Dave Dill, they had something up their sleeve on this land exchange, and the last thing they wanted to do is answer questions I might have posed on the current proposal. And so it goes.

Marshall, please direct your opposition to the powerful people, not us little people. Let us have the fair and equitable land exchange. As to what lands are transferred and the reasons why, work to clean up that and get as much disclosure as possible. And Franken...don't try to sneak around here in private and not invite the "locals" to attend your information gathering sessions! Just get Amy to join you and co-sponsor a Senate companion bill identical to the bill passed by the House an legislature, signed by the Governor and for the most part, written by the Range delegation. The BWCA is not in St. Louis Park or Hollywood, it is in rural northeastern Minnesota.

Dang ... and just a few days ago someone preached that the media (and this is part of that) is only a place for "facts".

Wonder what might have changed in the few days. (no question mark because it isn't a question)

Gee jt: It didn't take you long to crawl out from under your rock.

Or you to once again totally ignore the issue mentioned by me just above. Just doing my due diligence. So .... ?

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