BWCAW land swap bill passes House

The U.S. House approved legislation this afternoon that would swap 86,000 acres of state-owned land inside the Boundary Waters for an equal value of federal land outside the wilderness.

The U.S. House approved legislation this afternoon that would swap 86,000 acres of state-owned land inside the Boundary Waters for an equal value of federal land outside the wilderness.

The bill, which has not been introduced in the Senate, is an effort to end a decades-long disagreement over what to do with state-owned land locked inside the federal Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Because that land has been unavailable for logging or mining, it has contributed nothing to the state's permanent school trust fund that helps pay for K-12 education across the state.

The legislation, HF 5544, sponsored by Rep. Chip Cravaack, R-North Branch, would force the Department of Agriculture's Forest Service to make the swap. It's the farthest any effort to settle the land dispute has advanced.

The vote was 225-189 and split mostly down party lines.

Northern Minnesota politicians and the Minnesota Legislature support the land swap and passed state legislation authorizing the deal in April. The governor signed the bill with supporters saying the state might finally get something in return for the land locked up in the 1.1 million acre BWCAW since 1978. The bill also has support from the region's mining and timber interests who expected easier access to the land that the state would receive in trade -- much of it on the southern fringe of the Superior National Forest.


But environmental groups say the swap is a bad move, that it will weaken protections on the land outside the wilderness traded to the state and that the move is really a veiled effort to open up more land for mining with lesser state regulations. They say putting that forestland under the authority of the School Trust Fund means it will be managed intensively for revenue, such as timber harvest and mining, and not for ecological and recreation benefits as it is now in Forest Service management.

Critics also have blasted a provision of the bill that exempts the land trade from federal environmental rules under the National Environmental Policy Act.

Amendments that would have restored the NEPA requirement were voted down as were amendments that would have required a federal appraisal of the land and another that would have required a specific map of the land to be traded before the deal could be approved. Reps. Keith Ellison, D-Minneapolis, and Betty McCollum, D-St. Paul, led the effort against the bill.

"This bill puts recreation at risk and the industry that supports it," Ellison said, accusing the Cravaack bill of catering to multinational mining companies at the expense of local resort owners.

Ellison proposed an amendment, also defeated, forbidding the Forest Service from trading land if it would result in the loss of forest for fishing, hunting and other recreational opportunities. Ellison noted that the bill is opposed by most Minnesota environmental and conservation groups. The bill also is opposed by the Fond du Lac band of Ojibwe.

Cravaack said the appraisal required for most all congressionally ordered land exchanges wasn't necessary in this case. He called the amendments delaying tactics intended to thwart the deal.

"We have had 30 years of delays. Thirty years of appraisals. Thirty years of mapmaking. We don't need any more," Cravaack said.

The deal is said to involve some $100 million worth of real estate.


It's not clear if the legislation will advance in the Senate yet this year or if it would be signed into law by the president.

Several groups support a different, compromise agreement that would see about 40 percent of the state land in the BWCAW traded and another 60 percent purchased by the federal government. Some say the school trust fund would be better off with cash for a land sale to the feds, much as school trust land was sold in the southern half of the state earned cash for the fund years ago.

Several sides came together last winter to forge the compromise deal, including the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Superior National Forest, environmental and conservation groups. But that deal was quickly discarded by state lawmakers who opted for the total land trade.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at
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