Bill sells Superior National Forest land to Polymet

Legislation in the U.S. House would sell 6,700 acres in the Superior National Forest to the Polymet copper company without an environmental assessment or public input.

Legislation in the U.S. House would sell 6,700 acres in the Superior National Forest to the Polymet copper company without an environmental assessment or public input.

The federal land is precisely where the company hopes to mine for copper, nickel, platinum and palladium as early as next year.

It would be the first major sale of Superior Forest land to a private company.

The bill, HR 4292, introduced by U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., has not advanced in any committee.

Without legislation, the Forest Service is prohibited from selling any land to a private party, though exceptions are made for tracts smaller than 10 acres, said Jim Sanders, supervisor of the Superior National Forest.


Instead, the Forest Service usually trades land with property owners. The Forest Service has been negotiating with Polymet for about a year to exchange the land for other land in or near the Superior National Forest, Sanders said. But a land exchange of this size is more cumbersome, forcing Polymet to find multiple willing sellers, bargain over price and acquire purchase agreements.

The legislation would require the Forest Service to use money from the sale to buy private land of equal value in or near the Superior National Forest boundary. The bill exempts the land sale from a separate environmental review, but supporters note that an environmental review of the mining project is under way.

Supporters say the bill simply speeds up the process of trading the mine land for other forested land.

"The legislation gets us to the same end, the same result as a land exchange," Sanders said. "It's the same value, the same appraisal process, whether it's a sale or exchange."

Selling the land directly to Polymet probably would speed up the process by a year or so because it avoids the environmental assessment required with a land exchange and allows the Forest Service to deal with directly with willing sellers.

"We think it avoids a lot of duplication on the environmental assessment. ... And it saves a lot of time and effort for both us and the Forest Service," said Latisha Gietzen, Polymet vice president of public, environmental and government affairs.

Mineral rights vs. land ownership

Sanders said the Forest Service purchased the land from U.S. Steel in the 1930s but has never owned the mineral rights below the surface. Polymet controls those mineral rights.


Polymet officials say they had been moving ahead with mining plans, assuming their mineral rights "superseded" surface ownership, Gietzen said. Regional U.S. Forest Service officials last year informed the company that they didn't hold the same legal opinion.

Rather than battle it out, the two sides agreed on the legislation to sell the land, Gietzen said. But if that fails, the company still could try to sue the government to gain access to the minerals.

"We certainly can challenge their opinion. ... But nobody wants to go that route," Gietzen said.

Because the 6,700 acres is surrounded by mining-related activities -- a railroad to the south and an active taconite mine to the north -- Sanders said it makes sense to sell the land and use the proceeds to buy other, more environmentally sensitive land closer to the heart of the forest.

The forest covers more than 3 million acres; about 2 million of that is owned by the federal government. There are hundreds of tracts of private, state and county-owned land within the forest boundaries.

Sanders said he is eying private land in the Kawishiwi River area, near Trout Lake, the Fernberg corridor and near Mud Lake, where landowners are willing to sell and where "it makes sense to consolidate our holdings."

But critics of copper mining in the north woods say the legislation seems to offer a special deal to the mining company.

The land in question includes undeveloped forest and 1,200 acres of wetlands, said John Doberstein of Duluth, chairman of the Mining Without Harm committee of the Minnesota Sierra Club. The bill was introduced in December with no announcement.


"Not only does the bill exempt them from doing an Environmental Impact Statement [on the sale], it also sets a dangerous precedent of taking public land and transferring it to a private company for their profit without any public input," Doberstein said. "This really seems to fast-track the land sale for the convenience of the company, without any regard whether this is the right thing to do with the forest."

Critics say that copper mines in other areas of the world have almost always brought extreme environmental problems.

John Schadl, an Oberstar spokesman, said the bill was introduced at the request of the Forest Service and Polymet to speed the company toward mining operations.

"It's an effort to expedite the process but still do it in an environmentally sound way," Schadl said. "And the bill as it is now [will] not be the same bill that moves. ... There will be some changes."

No Senate version has been introduced yet.

Congressional action to sell national forest land to private parties is not unheard of, Sanders said. About a dozen such bills have been passed in the past decade, he said.

Polymet would be Minnesota's first copper-nickel mine. But Polymet is only one of several companies eyeing rich deposits of copper, nickel, platinum and palladium under northern Minnesota forests and lakes. The interest is being sparked by record-breaking prices for those minerals and new technology that make it easier to separate copper from other rock.

Polymet is the farthest along toward developing those minerals and has purchased land, processing equipment and buildings from the former LTV Mining site near Hoyt Lakes. The company's proposed open pit mine on federal property is several miles away toward Babbitt and would be connected by railroad to the processing plant.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at
What To Read Next
Get Local