BWCA debate involves dispute over state land

DULUTH, Minn. (AP) — A plan for the U.S. Forest Service to buy the remaining state lands still inside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area has become an emerging issue in the debate over the area’s future.
Contrary to most visitors’ understanding, not all of the land in the BWCA is federal property. Minnesota still owns about 100,000 acres inside the 1.1 million-acre federal wilderness, land that effectively became part of the BWCA when Congress drew its boundaries.
The state land has been used and managed just like the federal land next to it.
But Minnesota’s constitution requires the state to get some sort of return on that land, most of which is dedicated to the state’s school trust fund, which helps pay education costs for students.
Normally the state and federal agencies would swap land, but environmentalists, loggers and elected officials can’t seem to agree on how the state should be compensated for the land.
Kevin Proescholdt, executive director of the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, said his group opposes a land trade that would reduce federal lands, but would not oppose a congressional appropriation to buy the state land.
While the state in the past has held out for a land exchange, Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Rod Sando indicated this year that the state may now settle for cash.
So Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., in November began an effort to give the state fair market value for the land and put the money in the state’s school trust fund. All 10 members of the state’s congressional delegation approved a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service, encouraging the department to spend $10 million in 1998 to start buying the state land.
But the effort has drawn complaints from state legislators. Instead of money, lawmakers like Sen. Doug Johnson, DFL-Tower, Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, and Rep. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, want a land trade.
They say access to land is more valuable than the money. They want two acres of land outside the BWCA for each one inside, noting the lakefront BWCA land would be extremely valuable if it wasn’t locked up in a federal wilderness.
The argument against a buyout is rooted in how much land is logged. State lawmakers say the land outside the BWCA is more likely to remain open to loggers if it’s in state hands.
“The future of Minnesota’s timber industry lies outside of federal land. I think we’ll see a day, not too far down the line, when there is no logging in the Superior National Forest,” Bakk said. “So the less federal land there is up here, the better it is for the timber industry and our economy.”
The DNR is far less likely to ban logging, as several major environmental groups have proposed for all national forests, Bakk said.
The state lawmakers’ opposition has stalled the effort to purchase the land, and observers say the issue is likely to further complicate Congressional hearings scheduled to discuss the BWCA’s future this spring.