For all the big talk in northern Minnesota these days, you'd think a pot of gold had been discovered deep in the Boundary Waters -- enough to rescue the state's public schools from penury if only tree-huggers would get out of the way. Too bad it's largely a fairy tale.

The issue is the proposed Boundary Waters land swap now before Congress. It's the latest act in the long-running morality play that dominates politics in the north woods -- although this time "our schoolchildren" have been added to the familiar cast of hot-button characters -- pitting timber and mining interests on one side and federal bureaucrats and nature preservationists on the other.

The tale deserves a more complete telling and a more sober decision than lawmakers have so far delivered.

Let's start at the beginning. In 1849, Congress established Minnesota's territorial government and launched a process that held in trust two square miles in every township to benefit public schools. Over the years, most of the original 8.3 million acres of these "school trust lands" were sold or leased for private development. Proceeds were pooled and invested, with earnings applied to school budgets.

By the middle of the 20th century, only a small portion of the trust lands remained, mostly in northern Minnesota.

When, in 1978, Congress established the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, 93,000 acres of school trust lands were trapped within the park and rendered unusable for development because of the BWCA's prohibitions against mining and timber cutting. Numerous attempts at a federal buyout or a swap of these lands have failed over the years because of bitter feuding between development and environmental interests.

Earlier this year, in a rare bipartisan maneuver, the Republican-controlled Legislature and DFL Gov. Mark Dayton stepped in to pass an expedited land swap, opening the way for approval by Congress.

U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack's bill (HR5544) would execute the swap, trading a patchwork of school trust land within the BWCA (86,000 acres) for an unspecified amount of less-regulated federal land within the adjacent Superior National Forest. This land would presumably be converted to mining or logging, with proceeds benefiting the schools. Usual environmental review procedures would be bypassed.

Cravaack, a freshman Republican, sees his bill as a win for all sides, but that's not quite correct. Benefits for the BWCA would be negligible. The Superior National Forest would suffer additional intrusive mining of an uncertain scale at unspecified locations, with key decisions made largely in the shadows. The local economy would surely benefit as a result, but nobody knows by how much.

As for the state's schoolchildren, their benefit would be paltry despite all the high-toned rhetoric. Of the $9,000 or so per year that governments spend on an average Minnesota pupil, about $26 (less than 1 percent) comes from school trust lands, according to congressional testimony. Even if this particular land swap doubled the trust fund's contribution, the impact on kids would be microscopic.

The greatest potential benefit would flow to the large international mining companies that dominate lease activities in the region and, of course, to the politicians whose campaign coffers might expand, thanks to the generosity of those same companies.

There's no doubt that the nation, stuck in a sour economy, is in the mood for extraction. The hunger to drill, dig and frac is plain to see, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Bakken oil fields -- and now to the Superior National Forest, where the open-pit mining of sulfides is contemplated.

Eagerness to circumvent environmental laws and procedures is part of the pattern. As one legislator (Rep. David Dill, DFL-Crane Lake) said of the proposed land swap: "We should mine, log and lease the hell out of that land that we get in the change."

Assuming that Cravaack's bill passes the U.S. House, the U.S. Senate -- namely Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, both Democrats -- should summon the courage to ask harder questions: Why should this land swap escape environmental review? What will be the size and location of the traded land? What are the economic and environmental tradeoffs? How can the public trust those making surveys and selections to rely on sound cost-benefit analysis rather than on political pressure? Could their decisions affect the 100,000 acres of state-held mineral rights that still exist within the BWCA? Shouldn't the process be more transparent?

Cravaack's bill, in present form, fails to include those assurances and fails the credibility test as well. This land swap isn't about Minnesota's hard-pressed schoolchildren. It's about converting forest land to mining.


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