In the Name of the Children

Environmentalists cry foul as legislators argue that a land swap will benefit public education

As Tom Rukavina tells it, the schoolchildren of Minnesota got a raw deal in 1978, when the United States Congress passed legislation creating the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA), a million-acre wilderness preserve in northeastern Minnesota. "We've got a lot of state-owned land in the Boundary Waters which is supposed to be generating money for public education," says the DFL state representative from the Iron Range city of Virginia. "But basically, it was confiscated by the federal government and we haven't got one red cent."

Under state law, 2.5 million acres of school trust land--originally deeded to the territory of Minnesota in 1849 by the federal government--is managed by the Department of Natural Resources, including some 93,000 acres inside the BWCA. Revenues generated by logging or any other commercial activity on this land is then placed in an endowment called the Permanent School Fund, which is a source of revenue for the state's public school districts.

Historically, logging on school trust land (the most common commercial activity) has yielded little; a legislative audit completed in 1998 found most of the profits from timber sales were consumed by administrative expenses. In 1997, for instance, just $1.7 million of $4.4 million in sales ended up in the Permanent School Fund. But when it comes to the Boundary Waters, Rukavina argues, there is a larger principle at stake: The law that established the BWCA in 1978 prohibits logging. So the state hasn't even been able to turn a modest profit on that land. In Rukavina's view, the remedy is simple. He argues the state should surrender the BWCA in exchange for as much as 300,000 acres of federal land in the Superior National Forest, where logging is permitted.

The specter of such a large-scale land swap alarms environmentalists and anti-logging activists. "Your average Joe might think, 'What's the big deal? If it's public land, it's protected.' But there's a big difference between the way the state manages land and the way the Forest Service does," explains Ray Fenner, executive director of the Superior Wilderness Action Network (SWAN). Currently, groups such as SWAN can use an administrative appeals process to object to logging on federal land, which can delay the sale of timber for several years or prevent it altogether. On state-managed lands, there is no such option. "This is just about the wood," Fenner says. "The industry's been running out. There's been 18 plant expansions in recent years, and they want more and more. The quickest way for them to get it is to work a trade with the feds."

Sarah Strommen, a policy analyst for the Twin Cities-based Friends of the Boundary Waters, agrees. "It just seems like this is a tactic to open more lands to the state timber sales program. If the question is, 'What is best for schoolchildren?' there are other options that are better, in terms of generating revenue and keeping the land intact."

Strommen's organization is advocating a federal buyout of the BWCA land for between $30 million and $40 million. According to an analysis performed by retired University of Minnesota economist Vernon Ruttan on behalf of the Friends, modest investments from such a buyout would generate more revenue than a land swap to facilitate lumbering.

Rukavina scoffs at such claims. "Don't believe the BS those environmentalists feed you. It could generate a lot of money in perpetuity. And it would be good for the local economy," he says flatly. "In debate after debate, every damn environmental group has said that land is more valuable than money. I want to hold them to their statements. I don't want to see them be hypocrites."

Exactly how much the BWCA land is worth is unknown. The DNR is currently awaiting the results of an appraisal. Once that is complete, Bill Brice, the DNR's director of lands and minerals, says his agency will develop a formal recommendation and present it to the state legislature within the next two years.

The U.S. Forest Service (which manages the BWCA and the Superior National Forest) has already made up its mind. The organization is opposed to a large land transfer. Dave Schmidt, real estate program manager at the Superior National Forest, says that the Forest Service routinely engages in small-scale land swaps with state and county governments--typically just a few acres. And even then, the demands of the process can be burdensome. "We have to be very careful. We have to consider everything from archeological sites to endangered species, to protection of wetlands. To do something on this scale, it would be very complex, expensive, and would take years. And we don't see that the public would really benefit."

Schmidt acknowledges, however, that time-consuming checks and balances could be side-stepped by an act of Congress. And that is precisely what Rukavina and most of his fellow lawmakers in northern Minnesota are hoping for. Given their previous experiences with Minnesota's congressional delegation, there is reason for optimism. In 1997 all ten members of the delegation signed a letter urging then-Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman to pursue a cash settlement for the school trust lands. When Rukavina and Co. objected, however, the deal was taken off the table. Rukavina then helped usher a resolution through the Minnesota House of Representatives supporting a swap as the best resolution. It was signed by Gov. Jesse Ventura.

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