Lawsuit: Feds sold Superior National Forest land to mining company for way too cheap

$550 for an acre of National Superior Forest land is quite the bargain.

$550 for an acre of National Superior Forest land is quite the bargain.

Canadian mining company PolyMet wants to open a first-of-its-kind mine in the Superior National Forest to crack into the area’s rich deposits of copper, nickel, and platinum. The highly contentious project has the potential to create good mining jobs for the locals, but it also runs a big risk of leaking sulfuric acid into the Boundary Waters.

PolyMet hasn’t gotten any of the state and federal permits it needs to start building, but on January 4, the U.S. Forest Service gave the company a huge leg up when it agreed to swap 6,650 acres of national forest land for 6,690 scattered private lands. The Forest Service said it was compelled to do this partly in order to avoid getting sued by PolyMet.

But the Forest Service just can’t seem to do anything right. Now it’s getting sued by environmentalists instead.

WaterLegacy, a Minnesota nonprofit founded to protect the state’s wetlands and wildlife from sulfide mining, filed a complaint on Monday claiming that the Forest Service violated federal land management laws by selling parts of the forest for way less than what they’re worth.

The Forest Service’s final agreement with PolyMet valued the federal lands at $550 an acre. That is based on a consultant’s study of five Wisconsin and Michigan properties that were sold for timber -- not copper-nickel mining.

The consultant also looked at nine northeastern Minnesota sales of land to mining companies by private entities and found an average price of $1,645 an acre, but that number apparently wasn’t taken into consideration.

So WaterLegacy hired its own expert appraiser, Jason Messner of Patchin Messner Dodd & Brumm, to check the Forest Service’s math. Messner’s report slammed the Forest Service’s valuation as “based solely on [the land’s] value for forestry and timber production, is not reasonable, and results in an opinion of value that is not credible.”

Based on this, WaterLegacy wants the Forest Service’s land swap agreement with PolyMet to get thrown out entirely.

“A new appraisal needs to be done in assessing the actual comparables, which are sales in northeastern Minnesota, in the private market, of land to mining companies for mining uses,” says Paula Maccabee, advocacy director for WaterLegacy. “The private market for mining related uses is different than the timber market. And the timber market they used was in Michigan and Wisconsin, which may not fit Minnesota’s anyhow.”

The Forest Service has not yet responded to the complaint.

PolyMet spokesman Bruce Richardson had this statement: “We have confidence in the Forest Service appraisals, which followed well-established federal guidelines by the U.S. Department of Justice. After years of review and analysis, the Forest Service has determined the land exchange is in the best public interest.”