The Superior National Forest has released the draft of a proposal it hopes will settle a 40-year old controversy over about 50 square miles of state school trust land trapped inside the federally controlled Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
The state is required to manage that land to generate revenue for public schools; but the federal government is required to restrict development and manage the Boundary Waters as wilderness.
The draft environmental impact statement released Thursday reflects a compromise reached five years ago by state and federal officials. But many environmental groups object, fearing it could pave the way for more mining and logging outside the wilderness.
As proposed, the Forest Service would acquire about 31,000 acres of state school trust land within the Boundary Waters, in exchange for federal land of equal value outside the wilderness area, chosen from a pool of parcels of up to 39,000 acres.
The Forest Service would then purchase the roughly 50,000 acres of school trust land remaining in the Boundary Waters from the state.
"I think that this land exchange along with the hybrid option of purchase is really a win-win for everybody," said Superior National Forest Supervisor Connie Cummins.
Forest officials back the plan because it allows the agency to consolidate ownership of lands within the Boundary Waters to protect the wilderness resource.
Efforts to broker a compromise deal date back to 2010. Two years later, DFL Gov. Dayton signed legislation to expedite a land exchange and give the state authority to sell school trust lands within the BWCA.
But the Superior National Forest still has not received funding to purchase the state parcels, despite applying every year since 2012, and some environmental groups have been wary of backing a partial exchange before money to purchase the remainder of the land is appropriated.
Others want the federal government to purchase all the state school trust land within the Boundary Waters, and not exchange any federal parcels outside the wilderness in return.
"This is simply a move to allow more intensive logging and to allow more mining outside of the Boundary Waters," said Elanne Palcich of Chisholm, Minn., with Save Our Sky Blue Waters.
While the federal government would not give up mineral rights of any of the parcels it exchanges, transferring surface rights to the state would make it easier for possible copper-nickel mining projects to progress, Palcich argued.
The public has about two months to comment on the draft review. The Forest Service has scheduled three open houses on the project, in Duluth, Mountain Iron and St. Paul, starting on Aug. 28.