The $1.3 trillion federal budget bill passed by Congress this week and signed into law by President Trump Friday includes $4 million for the federal government to purchase state land within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
The money will buy outright more than 51,000 acres of state land in small parcels across the lake-studded wilderness.
The purchase is part of a larger land deal, talked about for decades and in the works for years, that will see the National Forest Service finally assume ownership of about 83,000 acres of state land locked inside the boundaries of the 1.1 million-acre BWCAW since 1978.
The Minnesota Legislature in 2012 agreed to a deal that would exchange some of the state land for federal forest land outside the BWCAW. The other land would be purchased outright by the feds.
Last August the Forest Service said it has the acres identified and a plan in place to do the deal. Until now, however, the federal money hadn't been approved for the purchase part of the deal.
Some of the state land in the BWCAW is so-called school trust land earmarked to raise money for state public schools by the sale of timber or mining royalties. But the land that's locked in the federal wilderness has been off limits and unable to produce any revenue.
The state not only gets paid for the land up front, but the federal government will continue to pay local government in so-called payments in lieu of property taxes each year.
"This is good news and it has been a long road to get here," said St. Louis County Commissioner Frank Jewell, who has made several trips to Washington D.C. to lobby in support of the federal purchase. "It's another step toward a good compromise to settle this issue."
County officials praised Minnesota U.S. Reps. Rick Nolan and Betty McCollum and U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith in securing the money in the 2018 budget bill.
Another roughly 31,000 acres of state land in the BWCAW will be swapped for federal land inside the Superior National Forest, much of it where federal parcels are interspaced with state and county land.
A final environmental impact statement on the land swap will be ready later this year that could identify the specific parcels to be traded, said Kris Reichenbach, spokeswoman for the Superior National Forest. The actual trade could take months longer to wind through the legal process, she noted.