It’s time to cut through the political spin and take a look at some of the troubling realities behind Rep. Chip Cravaack’s recently approved bill to exchange state lands inside the federally-protected Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for federal lands located outside the wilderness in the Superior National Forest.
While Rep. Cravaack has touted passage of the bill in the apparent hope that voters in our region will look kindly on him come Nov. 6, the legislation is a poor example of public policy— and it’s one that residents of our region will come to regret if anything close to this is ultimately approved in Washington (which is unlikely).
First, contrary to his public statements, Cravaack’s bill, known as the Minnesota Education Investment and Employment Act, does cost St. Louis, Lake, and Cook counties annual payments that they otherwise would have received under a more advantageous land exchange.
By converting 86,000 acres of state lands in the BWCAW to federal ownership, the counties would be entitled to additional federal payments under the Thye-Blatnik Act. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that those additional payments would amount to about $1 million annually, but the bill passed by the House last week includes a provision that prohibits any additional payment to the Arrowhead counties. While the legislation doesn’t reduce current payments, advancing a land exchange under these terms does reduce funding that these counties would otherwise have received annually.
Second, despite claims by Rep. Cravaack and some Iron Range legislators to the contrary, this measure won’t generate one additional dime for Minnesota school kids. In speaking for his legislation, Rep. Cravaack claimed that “school kids and their teachers have been cheated out of public education funding now for over 34 years.”
That’s just political hyperbole.
In fact, annual proceeds from the state’s school trust amount to roughly one-half of one percent of total school costs, and those proceeds simply offset spending from the state’s general fund—they don’t augment it. In other words, increasing the school trust doesn’t mean so much as one penny in additional funding for schools, and Rep. Cravaack should know that. In this case, it appears he’s just using the idea of helping “school kids” to push an entirely different agenda.
Which gets us to the real effect of the bill, which is to set the stage for a wholesale give-away of public lands (currently open to all of us) to mining companies. Let’s just be honest— that’s what this is really about. Converting existing federal lands in the Superior National Forest to state ownership exempts these lands from a host of federal laws, including the Weeks Act, which prohibits strip mining in the Superior, and potentially hands environmental review and oversight over to state officials who have largely allowed the mining industry to have its way in Minnesota in recent years. Even so, there’s no guarantee that any mining jobs will be created as a result of the proposed exchange.
At the same time, the bill supersedes a well-established process already underway to develop a state-federal land exchange that meets the interests of a wide range of stakeholders, not just foreign mining companies. This is the worst kind of special interest legislation, intended to circumvent longstanding laws and rules and sacrifice the interests of the majority of stakeholders to benefit a handful of private corporations. Minnesotans shouldn’t stand for it, much less be praising it.
While the state clearly has a legitimate interest in a solution to the longstanding problem of its land ownership in the BWCAW, Rep. Cravaack’s solution sells our local governments short, disregards the interests of many residents and business owners in our state and region, and doesn’t generate an extra penny for schools.
Hopefully, the state’s U.S. Senators will take a more thoughtful approach.