School land trust bill reaches Dayton

/ 27 April 2012 / jennifer

John Myers, Duluth News Tribune, April 27, 2012 –

Legislation that would take 2.5 million acres of northern Minnesota forest and wetlands away from the Department of Natural Resources and give it to a new school trust lands director — with oversight from a new legislative commission — is awaiting action by Gov. Mark Dayton.

The legislation would dramatically change how the land is managed, putting more emphasis on raising money for state education efforts and less emphasis on ecological or recreation concerns.

The legislation creates a new school trust lands director, under the governor’s Department of Administration, to oversee the land. A new Legislative Permanent School Trust Fund Committee would provide additional oversight.

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 doles out 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.

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 bill has support from the state school boards association and the state teachers union.

A DNR official did not return a reporter’s phone call on the issue Thursday. A spokesperson for Dayton also did not immediately return a reporter’s phone call Thursday on whether the governor will sign or veto the bill. 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.

Opponents say the changes will give environmental sustainability and public recreation short shrift when land management decisions are made. Groups calling on their members to demand that the governor veto the bill include 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, opponents say trust land will never 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.