Minnesota's newest U.S. senator sees it: Regardless of copper-nickel mining, the land exchange proposed between the federal government and PolyMet Mining is a great deal for our state.
The public would receive more land than it'd give up: 6,690 acres would become part of the Superior National Forest in exchange for 6,650 acres at the proposed PolyMet mining site near Babbitt. What's more, the land to be received by the public has road access, making it ideal for things like fishing and hunting. It also offers access to wild rice lakes. And it includes valuable shoreland property, including frontage on the Pike River in the headwaters of Lake Vermilion. The land the public is to give up, by stark contrast, is almost entirely inaccessible and has been surrounded by heavy industrial activities since the 1950s.
Buoyed by all of this, last year, U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan introduced legislation to get the deal done. The measure passed the House overwhelmingly, supported by both Republicans and Democrats. Clearly, a good deal for the public can transcend politics.
So it was a bit baffling last month when the $1.3 trillion federal spending package left out the PolyMet land exchange - especially when other federal land exchanges made the final cut that was signed into law by President Donald Trump.
The swap, originally conceived under President Barack Obama, still can be passed - and needs to be passed, U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, appointed in December to finish out the term of Sen. Al Franken when he resigned, said last week on the Iron Range.
"I'm optimistic we're going to be able to work together and work also with Congressman Nolan and Sen. (Amy) Klobuchar to make headway and get this done," Smith said, according to a WDIO-TV news report. "A land exchange bill like this could be passed along with other land exchanges that need to be done around the country. So that would be one example of what we could do. ...
"I was disappointed, too. I worked hard on this and so did a lot of other people," Smith further said to reporters, referring to the federal spending package's snub of the land swap. "We are going to get this done. It's good for the people of Minnesota."
The land exchange would check off one more box for PolyMet in its quest to finally build and operate Minnesota's first copper-nickel mine, with its good-paying jobs and tens of millions in economic benefit for our region.
Nolan's bill had the added bonus of ending federal lawsuits against the land swap that otherwise can be introduced, again and again, by opponents who then could argue to a court that the project's environmental reviews are too old and need updating or that appraisals are outdated and need to be redone. The Nolan bill would stymie such stalling.
"After 12 years of scrupulous review, it's time to get the (land) exchange over and done with so we can fully focus on furthering a new generation of good-paying mining jobs in Northeastern Minnesota," Nolan, D-Crosby, said in a statement to the News Tribune in July.
As disappointing as it was that the measure didn't make it into last month's federal spending bill, Smith and others representing Northeastern Minnesota see the urgency. They see the need to finally get this good deal done.