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Boundary Waters Land Sale & Exchange

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The State of Minnesota, Superior National Forest and The Conservation Fund are working together on a mutually beneficial strategy to transfer ownership of school trust lands located within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) to federal ownership. Minnesota’s school trust beneficiaries are entitled to the economic benefits from these lands that were granted at statehood to support public education. This project will resolve the decades-old controversy of school trust lands within the BWCAW that originated with the 1964 Wilderness Act and subsequent passage of the 1978 BWCAW Act that confined approximately 83,000 acres of school trust lands within the wilderness area.

Beginning in 2009, the Minnesota Legislature’s Permanent School Trust Fund Advisory Committee (now known as the Legislative Permanent School Fund Commission) appointed a working group to develop a strategy to meet the land management goals of both the School Trust and the Forest Service. The working group consisted of a cross-section of interested stakeholders from the education and environmental communities, mining and timber industries, county government, and representatives from the Forest Service and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR). This work group devised and recommended the “Hybrid Model” comprised of a one-third land exchange and two-thirds land sale . The Minnesota Legislature passed Resolution No. 1 during its 2010 session supporting the Hybrid Model, and the Governor of Minnesota signed legislation in 2012 to expedite it. The hybrid proposal calls for one-third of the school trust lands to be exchanged for equally valued federal lands outside the BWCAW and envisioned the Forest Service purchasing the remaining two-thirds of school trust lands in the BWCAW.

In August 2012, the Minnesota DNR formally proposed a land exchange consistent with this collaborative framework and legislation. The initial phase of the project would exchange one-third of the school trust lands within the BWCAW (approximately 31,000 acres) for an equal value of federal lands outside of the BWCAW from a federal candidate pool of approximately 39,000. Candidate federal parcels were identified by the working group during the collaborative process. Additional information and a map identifying parcels for exchange can be viewed here .

The legislative mandate for school trust lands is to manage them for maximum long-term economic return with sound natural resource conservation and management principles. This mandate directly contradicts the wilderness laws and regulations implemented by the Forest Service in the BWCAW. The intent of the land exchange is to convey lands without wilderness restrictions to the state. At the same time, the Forest Service would consolidate land ownership within the BWCAW to better protect the wilderness resource.

Initiating a land exchange required a feasibility analysis of the proposal. The feasibility analysis is a screening tool that evaluates whether the proposal supports the standards and guidelines of the Superior National Forest Land and Resource Management Plan. The Forest Service completed its feasibility analysis for the school trust land exchange in May 2014 with a recommendation to proceed with the proposed exchange.

Since that time the proposed land exchange has undergone environmental analysis pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act. The Forest Service published its Draft Environmental Impact Statement in August 2017 and continues to work towards issuing its final environmental impact statement and draft record of decision in 2020. Concurrently, the Forest Service also will be completing an appraisal of school trust lands within the BWCAW. A land exchange project goal is to seek approval from the Land Exchange Board in 2020 once the Forest Service completes the appraisal and issues its final record of decision.

The Hybrid Model also called for the land sale/federal acquisition of the remaining two-thirds of school trust land within the wilderness area. Until fiscal year 2018, the Forest Service had been unsuccessful in obtaining project funding even though the BWCAW project continues to rank high on Forest Service priorities both regionally and nationally. Based on the lack of federal funding to condemn the school trust lands, the State of Minnesota and Superior National Forest sought a partnership with The Conservation Fund to resolve the lack of funds for the remaining two-thirds land sale portion of the Hybrid Model.

This new partnership advanced the “Plan B: Private Forestland Alternative.” Plan B envisions The Conservation Fund (TCF) acquiring industrial timberlands in St. Louis County. Once acquired, the state and TCF will enter into a multi-year land exchange for school trust lands located within the BWCAW for TCF industrial timberlands. Finally, TCF will sell the former school trust lands to the Superior National Forest.

The state/federal/TCF partnership demonstrated immediate success as evidenced by an initial $4 million dollar federal appropriation in 2018. The project also received a $5 million appropriation in 2019, and an additional $4.5 million has been requested for 2020. Since the BWCAW project competes nationally against other conservation projects, the Office of School Trust Lands will continue to work collaboratively with our partners to advocate for the project and encourage the Forest Service and Congress to prioritize federal funding in an effort to convey the school trust ownership in the BWCAW.

BWCAW Sale/Exchange Map
BWCAW "Plan B" Map
BWCAW "Plan B" Infographic
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