Dayton signs bill changing how 2.5 million acres of northern Minnesota land is managed

/ 29 April 2012 / jennifer

John Myers, Duluth News Tribune, April 29, 2012 –

Gov. Mark Dayton late Saturday night signed into law legislation that changes how 2.5 million acres of state forest land is managed across northern Minnesota.

The new law leaves the school trust land under the umbrella of the Department of Natural Resources but adds a new state director of trust lands, under the state Department of Administration, and also adds a standing Permanent School Trust Fund Committee in the Legislature to help direct trust land policy.

The legislation demands that state managers now put more emphasis on raising money for state education efforts and less emphasis on ecological or recreation concerns.

The 2.5 million acres, an area larger than Yellowstone National Park, is spread across 20 northern counties in mostly square-mile plots. It was given to the state by the federal government 150 years ago with the stipulation that any money made off the land — from logging, mining or land sales — be assigned to a trust fund that gives money to school districts across the state.

The land has been managed by the DNR for decades as if it were traditional state forest used by hunters, campers and hikers, with trees sold for cutting by the state’s timber industry. Revenue has fluctuated based on demand for logging and mining.

Opponents say the bill effectively takes management of the 2.5 million acres away from the science-based DNR and gives it to lawmakers and a new trust lands czar that will overlook environmental impacts, hunters, hikers and other people who use the land.

But supporters say the DNR has been more worried about trees than students. They say the legislation is a critical step in getting the land to produce more revenue for the trust fund. They say the $700 million bank account, from which interest is divided up for school districts, could have been closer to $1 billion by now if the DNR hadn’t been calling the shots.

The legislation kept in a controversial provision that requires managers to use “sound natural resource principals” when managing the land, a line some lawmakers wanted removed. But it also clearly states that if ecology buts up against economic concerns that the economic return to the trust must prevail.

That’s good news to school districts but also for mining and logging interests who say it will guarantee better access to the trust land.

“What it means is that you won’t see any extended rotation aspen to 75 years on school trust lands. It will be cut based on the best economic return” after about 40 years, said Wayne Brandt, executive vice president of the Minnesota Timber Producers logging group. Currently, the DNR lets some trees grow older for forest ecology impacts.

The bill has support from the state school boards association and the state teachers union. The final version passed Wednesday in the Senate 42-20 and the House 110-21.

The bill requires that the trust fund be compensated by 2018 for any trust land that can’t be logged or mined, such as Scientific and Natural Areas. If not, the land would lose any special designation. It’s not clear who would pay that money.

Several groups had called on their members to ask the governor to veto the bill, including the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, Friends of the Cloquet Valley State Forest, Izaak Walton League of America, Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, the Minnesota Environmental Partnership and Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness.

The groups also say the bill makes it easier for the state to sell lakeshore property owned by the trust, regardless of the conservation value of the land.

Opponents note that last year the trust fund amounted to only $26 per student of the more than $5,000 the state gave in per-pupil aide to districts. Even if that somehow doubled under new management direction, opponents say trust land never will be a major source of education funding and would instead be a better legacy to leave untrammeled for future generations.

Some sporting groups are worried that the new trust land managers may start charging hunters and others for access to the land.