Differing maps create confusion in land exchange debate
Marshall Helmberger

It’s become increasingly clear to me that much of the controversy surrounding the proposed BWCAW federal/state land exchange is due to miscommunication over two differing maps— and that a reasonable solution may well be in the works.

An aide for Sen. Al Franken who has been meeting with a variety of groups on the issue, told me recently that public concern over the proposal is reduced when lands containing known copper-nickel deposits are removed from the list of federal lands to be exchanged with the state of Minnesota.

Exempting those lands would presumably be just fine with someone like Tom Rukavina, a strong exchange advocate, who has insisted from the beginning that none of the lands proposed for exchange contain copper-nickel deposits.

And Tom is right, if you only look at the map prepared by the federal-state working group that’s been identifying lands for an exchange for the past two and half years. That’s the map that Tom has been referring to in his recent letters to our paper and in comments he’s had published elsewhere.

The trouble is, there’s another map— which was prepared by the Department of Natural Resources following the passage of state legislation last year. That legislation badly muddied the established process (and with it the map that Tom has been referring to), instead identifying federal land in the Mesabi Purchase Unit and areas near Hoyt Lakes as high priority for exchange. The Hoyt Lakes block includes PolyMet’s NorthMet deposit and other areas identified as having high mineral potential, including copper-nickel. Similar language was included in U.S. House legislation that was pushed and passed by former Rep. Chip Cravaack last fall.

That’s when environmentalists and many others started crying foul, suspecting the new proposal was an attempt to free mining companies from some federal regulations, such as the Weeks Act. The involvement of these lands raised the profile of the land exchange with the public, and it’s my understanding that phone calls, emails, and letters to members of the state’s congressional delegation on the subject have been running heavily against the proposal passed by the Legislature and the U.S. House last year.

Despite the suspicions of environmentalists, I don’t think that legislators plotted to engineer a mining company give-away when they passed their new land exchange bill last year. But by meddling with a process that legislators themselves had established just two years earlier, it certainly looked like an end-around and legislators should have known better. When lands with high potential for copper-nickel mining were specifically identified as a high priority for exchange, it’s hardly a surprise that environmental groups objected.

I agree with Mary Tome’s comment from last week that it’s time we craft a resolution to this issue. Unfortunately, the legislation passed last year created a much bigger controversy than was necessary and, if anything, has only further delayed completion of an exchange.

The federal-state working group has finished identifying lands for an exchange and the new Superior Forest Supervisor, Brenda Halter, appears committed to expediting an exchange for the lands identified.

The process established in 2010, which involves an exchange of about 41,000 acres and the federal purchase of remaining school trust lands in the BWCAW, is a reasonable compromise that most everyone should be able to live with.

If we’re actually interested in growing the permanent school trust, it’s pretty tough to argue with the benefits of selling some of the land, versus a full exchange.

Since the exchange only deals with surface rights, it should have very little impact on the mineral revenues accruing to the trust. That leaves timber revenues, which have historically fallen far short of what could be generated from a cash sale.

In 1998, the Legislative Auditor, with help from the DNR, calculated that timber sales across the 2.5 million acres of school trust land would generate between $189-$305 million over 40 years, depending on a number of variables.

If we assume a similar rate of return, we could expect an additional 50,000 acres of school trust land in northeastern Minnesota to generate between $3.8-$6.1 million for the school trust over the next 40 years. By contrast, a cash sale could easily generate $35 million right away. Add in 40 years of accumulated investment return and, even at three and a half percent, you’re talking over $100 million. Versus $3.8-$6.1 million.

Some advocates of an exchange-only approach like to talk about maximizing returns to the school trust. So why aren’t they doing the math? When they push land over cash, it seems pretty clear there are other agendas at play than helping our long-suffering schools.

And it’s their right to have an agenda, but when they trot out school kids in their defense, they just look crass, or uninformed.

I know that some have suggested that a sale of school trust lands to the U.S. Forest Service is unconstitutional, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other ways to accomplish the same thing.

In the past, the state has used the condemnation process to essentially “cash out” school trust lands, converting them to regular state ownership, which could then be sold or managed in any way that state officials choose.

DNR Commisioner Tom Landwehr has requested a legal opinion on this and other questions related to a possible sale of school trust lands from Attorney General Lori Swanson. That opinion may or may not clarify the matter. In either case, where there’s legislative will, there’s usually a way to get it done. Legislators and their legal aides craft constitutional work-arounds all the time.

In the end, there’s pretty broad agreement that the state should divest itself of its BWCAW lands, and that the process should proceed as quickly as possible. And everyone seems now to agree that lands with copper-nickel potential should not be part of the exchange.

That means the legislation passed by the Legislature and the U.S. House last year (which does identify copper-nickel deposits as high-priority for an exchange) likely will not form the basis of a final deal. And the U.S. House bill restricted federal payments to northeastern Minnesota counties, which was another serious flaw.

At this point, completing the original process established in 2010 makes the most sense.

Advocates of state divestment of lands in the BWCAW should get on board. The sooner we all start moving in the same direction, the sooner we can get this done.

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2 comments on this item

I want to see this thing come to a close myself, having it on my "to do" list for 35 years. However, I see promise in the editors points, I can and will not support an exchange that is not acre for acre.

Let's consider this: The state land in the BWCA that the FEDS don't want swapped amounts to about 50,000 acres. They, and the editor, recommend an outright purchase of those lands although with taxpayer dollars. These state lands are already taxpayer owned, so who in their right mind would advocate the taxpayers buy what they already own? Now, if the Timberjay and Sierra Club would fund the purchase with their deep, private pocketbooks and then donate the land back the the Feds, how could I oppose that? Private money used to acquire rights to taxpayer land and the rights to the land returned back to the taxpayer. Makes sense to those of us not chugging out of former San Francisco Congressman Phil Burton's bourbon bottle.

But I'm not over yet. In order for me to accept this deal, the Feds would have to agree to give up title to 50,000 acres of Fed land outside the BWCA and turn those lands over to the DNR. This would accomplish the reasonable goal of not increasing federal ownership of lands in northeastern Minnesota, thereby complicating the mission of the environmentalists of restricting our rights on the lands we live with. We want less federal lands, not more.

How about it Marshall? Want to get together and draw up this proposal to present to the feds and state? You and I will both sign it and live with it. Seems a reasonable compromise and solution to me and those I represent.

Great post Orrcountry! Your solution is the only acceptable ending to this convuluted, decades old mess.

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