Up north, a last-ditch pitch to stop copper leases

Old law says state can award drilling rights on private property. State's huge copper deposits have attracted mining companies, to the distress of some landowners.

Private property owners from the Ely area will make a final appeal Wednesday to the state's top leaders to stop exploration for copper on their land, which lies in a part of the state cherished for its clean lakes and stately forests.

The state's Executive Council, made up of the governor, the attorney general and other elected officials, is holding a special meeting to hear out citizens who have been fighting the state's decision last April to sell 50-year mineral leases on their land.

Residents and cabin owners in what may become a new copper mining district near Ely say they were shocked that the state's century-old minerals law seems skewed to favor mining companies over property owners. It was also their introduction to a side of the Department of Natural Resources that they had never seen -- the one with a mission to promote mining.

"In a 21st-century democracy, it seems very 19th-century," said Todd Ronning, a woodcarver who owns forested land near Two Harbors and a summer cabin on Sand Lake near Isabella. "I'm surprised to see that it's my own state that seems to be the Goliath here."

But officials say they are only following the law, which gives the state rights to the copper, nickel and other valuable ore under some private property. It's all part of a century-old legal framework in Minnesota that has provided millions of dollars in mining-lease revenue for the state's public schools. Any surveying or exploratory work by mining companies, they add, must be negotiated with property owners.

"Typically, most companies and landowners come to terms," said Larry Kramka, director of the DNR's Division of Land and Minerals.

Most of the time, the mining companies ultimately don't do any drilling or excavation, and the leases revert back to the state, they said. When they do disturb the land, the companies are expected to clean up the property when they are done.

Frank Ongaro, executive director of the industry group Mining Minnesota, says companies often go beyond what's legally required in working with property owners.

Mining boom?

But the leasing fight reflects a much larger conflict brewing over hard-rock mining in northern Minnesota, a region prized for its wild beauty and proximity to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Four mining companies are now looking for copper on both public and private land, and they predict that the coming boom will bring thousands of jobs to an area hungry for industry since the taconite boom ebbed.

But the region is also home to dozens of resorts and outfitters, hundreds of cabin owners and a rising number of people fulfilling a lifelong dream to retire in Minnesota's North Woods. Many of them fear that despite industry assurances to the contrary, copper-nickel mining comes with grave environmental risks.

"It's like putting a porn shop next to a church," Ronning said. "There should be some public dialogue about what we want for this area, and that doesn't seem to be happening."

DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said public debate will occur if and when the mining companies decide they want to mine. At that time, the state and federal government would conduct an environmental review of the proposals and, if approved, issue permits regulating the mines.

"That, honestly, is a much higher hurdle," he said. "Just identifying the presence of minerals does not guarantee that they can mine."

Ongaro and mining company officials say they, too, want to protect the region and that new technologies will allow them to mine with minimal risk to water and air.

Hidden treasure

The DNR lease auction on both state-owned and private land is an annual event that ordinarily attracts little notice. But as interest in Minnesota's enormous copper and nickel deposits has increased in recent years, so have the bids for the state's leases.

Over the years, the state has generated nearly $1 billion in royalties from iron mining. State and industry officials say it allows all Minnesotans to share in the mineral wealth.

"The state in its infinite wisdom decided that mineral resources should go to the state and that the state should benefit," said Ongaro.

Mineral rights were separated from surface property rights on much of the private land in that region of the state in the 1800s. Decades ago, the state required property owners to file claims for their mineral rights every five years, and also imposed a tax on the potential value of those minerals. When the claims weren't filed or the taxes weren't paid, the mineral rights reverted to the state.

But many property owners did not know or care that they didn't control the minerals on their property, because until recently it had never been an issue.

"I didn't know much about mineral rights," said Ron Brodigan, who found out in April that the state had sold leases on 120 of his 200 acres on Sand Lake near Isabella, where he's lived for 30 years.

Brodigan, his son Steve, and other property owners have been trying to rally public opposition to the lease sales ever since. They succeeded temporarily last June, when the state's Executive Council, the only government body with the authority to overturn DNR lease sales, voted to postpone the decision until Wednesday. Ongaro said the delay "doesn't exactly send the best message" to the investment and mining industries, which could instead invest resources elsewhere.

Property owners said they want the council to exclude lease sales on private property, a small fraction compared with the thousands of acres of public land available for exploration, or at least allow property owners to buy back the mineral rights.

At minimum, they hope the council will delay a decision on these and future leases on private property so they can make their case to the Legislature. But they say council members have told them there is not much hope.

"There is so much momentum behind it," said Steve Brodigan. "I'm just trying to limit the impact on private property."

Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394

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