I’ve hesitated for weeks about wading into the ongoing debate between Tom Rukavina and Reid Carron over the possible exchange of federal lands in the Superior National Forest for state-owned property in the Boundary Waters.
But some misinformation has found its way into the debate that should be addressed, and some repercussions of a land exchange that have yet to be discussed by either Rukavina or Carron may have significance to many readers.
First, the misinformation.
In recent letters, Tom has challenged the claim of environmentalists that the exchange, as proposed in current legislation, would give mining companies a much freer hand in developing mineral resources in the region. As Tom wrote in a Nov. 3 letter, “contrary to the Friends of the BWCA and others crying wolf that this land exchange is about sulfide mining, there is no copper/nickel/sulfide bearing ore in this geological formation. None!!! How in the heck can you mine copper/nickel if there is no copper/nickel in the ground?”
At the time, Tom may have believed he was correct. But, as Tom now knows, it turns out that UMD geologists have indicated the high potential for what are known as volcanogenic massive sulfides in at least one portion of the Superior’s Mesabi Purchase Unit, which is targeted for the land exchange. These formations, like other sulfide deposits, contain a number of valuable metals, such as copper, nickel, and zinc. At the same time, portions of the Mesabi Purchase Unit have been the subject of other types of mineral exploration, particularly for gold. So far, that exploration hasn’t yielded a big payday, but that’s not the same as saying there’s no mineral potential in the area.
In addition, the area specifically identified as the highest priority for exchange includes federal lands running from near Aurora to Birch Lake. These lands include most of the known copper-nickel deposits in the region, including PolyMet’s NorthMet deposit. If passed through Congress, this land exchange would instantly exempt these potential mining operations from many federal environment laws, such as the Weeks Act, and would eliminate the need for PolyMet to undertake a land exchange of its own with the Forest Service.
Readers may view these realities as good or bad, depending on their perspective, but it probably doesn’t constitute “crying wolf” for environmentalists to claim this exchange stands to provide a major windfall to mining interests in the region.
It’s almost undeniable that the industry enjoys far greater influence over state regulators and the politicians who watch over them than they do over the federal regulatory system. With the state, mining companies get their way these days. Period. It’s not quite as easy with the feds.
But the impact of this exchange goes beyond mining. The Mesabi Purchase unit encompasses that modest-sized chunk of the Superior National Forest lying generally north of Virginia and south of Cook. It includes popular recreational areas, such as the Pfeiffer Lake Campground and Beach, the Big Aspen trails, and the Laurentian Divide fitness area and trails. While it’s possible such facilities could be maintained under state ownership, it’s unlikely. Funding for such amenities is in very short supply in Minnesota. The Legislative Auditor, in a 2009 report, noted that the DNR already has $125 million in backlogged maintenance needs and questioned whether the agency can realistically afford acquiring additional land.
And it does matter, by the way, which public agencies owns land. I pay a lot of attention to how public lands are managed, and there is no question that the Forest Service does a better job of managing lands for multiple purposes. That’s not to fault the DNR or county land managers— it’s really just a question of resources and objectives, and the fact is, the Forest Service has more resources and a much clearer mission to truly manage for multiple uses, such as recreation and biological diversity in addition to resource extraction. There’s no doubt that their planning processes can be time-consuming and cumbersome, but they generally provide a meaningful process for public involvement and achieve sounder management because of it.
While the DNR has taken some positive steps to engage the public in its own forest management planning, the agency remains too subject to political pressure from legislators, who frequently speak for special interests rather than the broader public.
I think all sides agree on one point, and that’s that the state trust land issue in the BWCAW needs to be addressed. But a process is already in place for implementing the exchange, and it’s a sound one. The various representatives who have been meeting on it have been strategically identifying lands across the Superior National Forest that effectively consolidate state and federal holdings within the forest. That’s a sound approach from a management perspective. If legislators, like Rukavina, don’t think the process is moving quickly enough, they can set a deadline for completion of the work.
The latest legislative actions simply short-circuit that process and target lands with the highest mineral potential in a fairly transparent effort to exempt proposed mining operations from federal oversight. And none of this, by the way, necessarily leads to any additional money for the Permanent School Fund, since the state doesn’t hold the mineral rights to most of the lands with high mineral potential.
It’s unfortunate, because the land exchange doesn’t have to be controversial if the politicians would simply allow the current process to work its course. Instead, it’s become just another irritant in the never-ending political fight over all things Boundary Waters, which, of course, means common sense and reason are immediately tossed out the window.