Exploration for copper, gold, and other precious metals in northeastern Minnesota has drawn attention to school trust lands created 150 years ago when Minnesota became a state.
Back then, the federal government assigned two sections in each township to be used for the benefit of public schools, something the government did for all the states that joined the union after 1802.
Those millions of acres could be sold, with the proceeds deposited in a trust. They could also be managed by the state, which earns money by leasing logging and mining rights.
State officials sold most of the original school trust lands. But more than 2 million acres remain in northeastern Minnesota, some of them inside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
That land in the wilderness is protected and can't earn money for the school trust. With mining companies promising millions in lease payments for new mines, officials in St. Paul and Washington are trying harder to create land swaps that they say could allow money to flow into the trust as never before.
That worries people like Bill Hansen, who owns Sawbill Canoe Outfitters on Sawbill Lake.
For him, places like a Boundary Waters campsite on the northern edge of Alton Lake are a Minnesota treasure. Scrappy jackpine and cedars grow out of granite boulders and the entire landscape is reflected in crystal clear water.
He often reflects on the fact that the loons on the lake and the crows, ravens and eagles flying overhead have no idea they're on school trust land.
That's one of the special things about the wilderness: man-made boundaries don't seem to exist. But on a map, and in ownership records, the spot is square mile of school trust land.
Minnesota owns 2.5 million acres of school trust land, mostly in the northeastern part of the state. The fund is valued at more than $700 million. Each year the state distributes about $26 per pupil to public schools. That's not much, compared to the roughly $8,000 per pupil in general education aid.
But the land isn't generating any money for public education. Because it is inside the wilderness, the state Department of Natural Resources cannot issue a permit to cut trees or build a mine there. That means no revenue from logging or mining leases is flowing into the school trust bank account.
Across the Boundary Waters Wilderness, there are 86,000 acres in the same category. State officials want to swap some of the land it owns inside the wilderness for land outside the wilderness — land that could support logging or mining.
The Superior National Forest also would like to make a swap. Foresters prefer to manage big swaths of land to avoid working around small bits of privately owned land.
Over the last two years, a task force of state and federal officials, along with interest groups from a range of viewpoints, has sketched the outlines of a swap.
The state would give up its land inside the Boundary Waters, and take over other acreage outside the wilderness in the Superior National Forest.
The task force based its work on an approach endorsed by the legislature in which one-third of the land would be traded and the federal government would pay cash for the rest.
But this year, the legislature did an about-face and set a goal of a 100-percent swap. That would mean no cash changes hands, but the state gets more land. State Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, said the school trust will make a lot more money that way.
Over the years, most of the income on school trust lands has been from mining leases.
"Mining is the golden goose, as mining has always been the golden goose for public education in Minnesota and for the University of Minnesota," Rukavina said.
With mining companies prospecting for more than $2 billion worth of copper, nickel, gold, and other valuable minerals, Rukavina wants to target mining on school trust lands.
The way he sees it, the more land the state receives, the more it can make in mining leases and royalties.
"They may say that, but that's not what they're going to get," said Tom Dabney, deputy supervisor of the Superior National Forest.
Forest officials have long favored swapping land it owns outside the BWCA for land inside the wilderness.
“Mining is the golden goose, as mining has always been the golden goose for public education in Minnesota and for the University of Minnesota.”State Rep. Tom Rukavina
"Our criteria was not to find the best timberland or the best mineral resources for the state," Dabney said.
Dabney said the work group did not offer prime mining land to the state, because it wanted to avoid political controversy that could sink the deal. Neither the state nor the federal government will give up mineral rights at this point.
U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack, a Republican who represents Minnesota's 8th District, has introduced a bill that not only calls for a swap instead of a sale, but also exempts the proposed land trade from standard environmental review.
That would depart from normal procedure, because the federal government typically requires a thorough environmental review for any land swap. Cravaack said the federal reviews are often abused and can last for years. He's confident the DNR and the U.S. Forest Service will ensure an environmentally sound land exchange.
Environmental groups are sure to fight that provision in Cravaack's bill. They say federal protections are stricter than state rules and oppose turning large chunks of land in the Superior National Forest over to the state. They would prefer a federal buy-out rather than an acre-for-acre trade.
For example, the Weeks Act, which governs much of the forest, prohibits open-pit mining. The BWCA Wilderness Act of 1978 requires that the BWCA be protected from any harmful environmental effects of mining "to the maximum extent possible."
Also, a pure trade of land would require the highly valuable Boundary Waters state land to be matched with less-valuable federal land, so a significant amount of the Superior National Forest could come under state control.
At the campsite on Alton Lake, surrounded by boulders and with a million-dollar view across the lake, outfitter Bill Hansen said the state has a ways to go before it catches up with the U.S. Forest Service, which is committed to an ecosystem-based approach to managing the land.
"It's far better to manage for all different resources, including recreation — and, by the way, an intact functioning ecosystem which sustains human life," he said. "It's really, really important."
But some lawmakers are more focused on using the land to produce income. They've said for years that the DNR doesn't make enough on trust lands. During the recent session, they set up a new office to monitor the department's management.
Perhaps mindful of the mid-1990s when a federal buyout seemed all but wrapped up, DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr wants to press on with the trade of one-third of the land, outlined by the task force. He said it's a good start to what could easily take many years.
"Let us accomplish this big chunk we've got on the table right now and continue with the goals in mind, but let's not derail this waiting for one big solution at the beginning," Landwehr said. "Because we really do want to make some progress on this and not be in the same place ten years from now as where we are right now."
The two years of work have built some common ground between officials at the DNR and the Superior National Forest. But that may not extend to legislators and some interest groups. The school trust land story began more than 150 years ago, and it's not over yet.