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Deal close on dispute over state land in BWCA

DULUTH, Minn. (AP) — Minnesota and federal officials are getting close to a deal that could end a decades-long dispute over state land locked within the federal Boundary Waters Canoe Area and generate new money for the state's schools.

An advisory committee of state, federal and local officials, and interest groups, has met quietly several times in the past year to forge a compromise on a combination land trade and purchase, the Duluth News Tribune reported ( ). They'll meet again Wednesday in Sandstone as they near agreement on how to handle nearly 87,000 acres of state land inside the 1.1 million-acre BWCA.

As the deal is shaping up, the state would swap about 43,000 acres inside the Boundary Waters for federal land in the Superior National Forest but outside the wilderness. The federal government also would buy around 40,000 or so acres of state land in the BWCA for about $80 million. Another 4,000 acres remain in question.

The sale proceeds would go into the state's Permanent School Trust Fund, which funnels income earned on about 2.5 million acres of state lands to school districts across the state. So would money from future timber sales or mineral leases on the land the state receives.

The state land became locked inside the BWCA when Congress set its boundaries in 1978. Minnesota officials initially welcomed the opportunity to manage the state lands as part of the wilderness. But over the years, state officials say, the land became de facto federal land, leaving the state unable to cut trees, mine or otherwise develop the property to earn income for the school trust fund.

For years, some northern Minnesota lawmakers and the timber and mining industries pushed for a straight land trade. But because the state land inside the BWCA is waterfront and more valuable, that would have required more than double the amount of federal land in exchange, dramatically shrinking the Superior National Forest, a move strongly opposed by environmental interests.

"A straight land trade just isn't going to happen," said Ron Nargang a former assistant Department of Natural Resources commissioner and former state director of the Nature Conservancy who serves as a leader for the advisory committee. "But I think we can make this hybrid plan work."

Any agreement would require approval from the Legislature and money from Congress. The federal money probably would come from a fund that uses royalties from off-shore oil and gas drilling to buy land for national forests.

Identifying parcels outside the BWCA that all sides could agree on has been the key issue, said Wayne Brandt, executive vice president of the Minnesota Timber Producers. Much of the federal land being considered is at the edges of the sprawling Superior forest.

Nargang said the deal already has "buy-in" from Gov. Mark Dayton's administration, key legislators and the state's congressional delegation.

A similar plan for the federal government to buy all the state land died in the mid-1990s when Iron Range lawmakers vetoed it, demanding land instead of cash.

"I think we're as close to something both sides can accept now as we ever will be," said Bob Krepps, St. Louis County land commissioner, who serves on the committee. "If we don't do this now, I don't think it will ever happen."

Some groups trying to forestall copper mining in the region have objected, saying at least some of the land the state would get is in areas of high interest for mining companies, which would put pressure on the state to try to maximize royalties for the trust fund and ignore environmental concerns. The DNR is asking for federal land where the state already owns the mineral rights, which would make it easier to open the land for mining.

"We are deeply concerned about the long-term impact of removing federal protection from high-quality natural land," said Lori Andresen, mining chair for the Sierra Club's North Star Chapter. The group favors a full federal buyout of the state land rather than a trade.

Nargang and others said the minerals potential isn't the main consideration. He said the state's primary objective has been to get accessible land it can manage that's contiguous with other state lands and can generate some sort of returns.


Information from: Duluth News Tribune,

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

Denton (Denny) Newman Jr.
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