U.S. House passes bill to swap land inside BWCA

Alton Lake
The shore of Alton Lake as seen Wednesday, May 2, 2012, from a plot of school trust land inside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.
Derek Montgomery for MPR

It's a story more than 150 years in the making.

Before the state of Minnesota was even founded, thousands of acres of land were set aside to generate money for public schools. Many of those lands were eventually sold off, but a large chunk of the remaining land is locked inside the federally-protected Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

For years, state and local officials have discussed the possibility of selling or swapping those lands. On Wednesday, the U.S. House passed a bill that would make a swap official.

The bill allows Minnesota to give 86,000 acres of school trust lands inside the Boundary Waters Wilderness to the federal government. In exchange, the federal government would give Minnesota lands currently controlled by the Forest Service in the surrounding Superior National Forest.

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After that, the state can do what it wants with the land, said first-term Republican Congressman Chip Cravaack, who represents northern Minnesota. Cravaack introduced the legislation that was approved along narrow, partisan lines 225 to 189.

"They can choose to sell the land, they can choose to mine the land, they can choose to lease the land," Cravaack said. "Whatever they choose to do will be up to the state and how they want to create revenue. But one thing is for certain, it must create revenue."

Cravaack, who is running for re-election on a platform of bringing more mining jobs to his district, said the bill would boost the local economy and direct more funds for schools through mining and logging royalties on the transferred lands.

School trust land
A section of school trust land as seen Wednesday, May 2nd near the shore of Alton Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.
Derek Montgomery for MPR

"In my school district, there are 40 kids in a classroom. Our school district is down to four days a week," Cravaack said. "Last time I checked, they needed some money and they'll take any kind of help that they can get."

In a spirited debate on the House floor, St. Paul Democrat Betty McCollum challenged the need for Cravaack's bill right now. Residents, mining companies, state and federal officials and environmental groups are in talks about what lands should be transferred and whether usage restrictions should be placed on that land.

"There is a stakeholders group in Minnesota that is working to determine if the land proposal is fair and transparent," McCollum said. "They're not at the table, folks."

Attempts by McCollum and fellow Democrat Keith Ellison to amend the bill failed. A broad coalition of wilderness groups is concerned about measures in the legislation that would exempt the transferred lands from environmental review.

"The bill threatens to open the door for mining companies to conduct dangerous sulfide mining near the Boundary Waters and inside the Superior National Forest," said Samantha Chadwick a preservation advocate for Environment Minnesota.

Forest lands transferred from federal to state control would no longer be covered by many federal environmental laws, although Cravaack said state laws would provide plenty of protection.

"Air protections still apply, water protections still apply," Cravaack said. "The Endangered Species Act, for example, well that would be dependent on where the endangered species is."

School trust land
A section of school trust land as seen Wednesday, May 2nd from Alton Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.
Derek Montgomery for MPR

But Chisholm environmental activist Elanne Palcich argued that state regulators have gone too easy on the mining industry in the past.

"They've allowed them to have all these sulfites in the water and all this stuff in the air, which we didn't even realize until we started studying this sulfide mining," Palcich said.

Palcich worries that if significant mining gets underway in the area, it will be difficult to stop.

"Once you let a mining industry get started, there's no way to regulate it. "It's like this train rolling down the tracks," Palcich said.

Both of Minnesota U.S. senators, Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, say they support a land exchange and are working on a companion bill to Cravaack's, but they have not yet introduced the legislation. And with Congress in session for just a handful of days between now and the election, it appears that a resolution to the Boundary Waters land issue may have to wait another year.