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Dayton signs BWCAW land swap bill

DULUTH -- Legislation that would trade away state-owned land that's now locked inside the federal Boundary Waters was signed into law Friday by Gov. Mark Dayton after clearing the House and Senate earlier in the week.

The bill opens the door for the state to trade more than 86,000 acres of state school trust fund land in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for an equal value of federal land outside the 1.1 million acre wilderness.

The bill ignores months of work by a legislative advisory working group made up of state and federal land experts, nonprofits, county officials, timber industry leaders and more that backed a hybrid compromise that would sell roughly half the state land to the feds and exchange the other half.

"It does appear now that months of effort by the working group were completely a waste of time. They (legislators) even threw out the work that identified which parcels were acceptable for everyone to trade for," said Betsy Daub, policy director for the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness group. "If you look at the lands listed in the bill as the goal to trade for, it's right in the middle of where all the copper mining interest is. This bill totally favors mining."

Daub said her group urged the governor to veto the bill.

But the legislation is just a first step toward a land exchange. Any deal still must be approved by federal officials, with congressional action and a bill signed by the president.

Supporters say the effort will end a decades-long dispute over what to do with the state land within the BWCAW, which was unable to earn any revenue for the school trust fund because federal regulations don't allow logging or mining in the wilderness. They say newly acquired federal lands outside the BWCAW now can be transferred to the state, which will allow mining and logging.

Opponents say that's exactly the problem, that the exchange would drastically reduce the overall size of the Superior National Forest outside the wilderness -- opening potentially sensitive lands to less strict state regulations for mining and logging.

That's fine for Wayne Brandt, executive vice president of the Minnesota Timber Producers industry group.

"We absolutely support the land exchange. State managed lands produce more volume than federal lands," Brandt said. "We'll see more wood available (for loggers and mills) under state control. ... And the trust finally gets some revenue from those acres that have been producing nothing."

While critics of federal government land management want an all-trade land deal with the state, BWCAW supporters and mining critics instead favor a total federal purchase of the state lands to keep the Superior National Forest its current size.

Under the compromise deal struck last winter, the state would have traded about 43,000 acres and sold another 40,000 acres to the feds. But lawmakers scrapped that compromise and substituted their own language.

Daub said the bill doesn't mandate that a land exchange will happen, and she thinks the federal government will hesitate at the idea of a straight exchange of land.

"Considering this is a bad deal for the U.S. government and taxpayers who own the national forest, we assume this is going to get a serious look," Daub said.

The state land became locked inside the federal wilderness after Congress drew the most recent boundaries of the BWCAW in 1978. At first, Minnesota officials said they welcomed the opportunity to manage their state lands as part of the wilderness. But over the years, state officials say the land has become de facto federal land, with the state unable to cut trees, mine or otherwise develop the property.

The same bill allows St. Louis County to sell tax forfeited land in the city of Virginia without the usual auction and to sell land at the site of the Chris Jensen nursing home in Duluth to the company currently operating the facility. The company has plans to build a major new senior housing campus on the land off Rice Lake Road near Arrowhead Road if a negotiated deal can be struck with the county.

JOHN MYERS is a writer for the Duluth News-Tribune. The Bemidji Pioneer and the News-Tribune are Forum Communications Co. newspapers.