Boundary Waters School Trust Land Exchange A Toxic Trade on the Horizon

Elanne Palcich

The open pit (background) and waste-rock piles (middle) of the Highland Valley Copper Mine at Logan Lake, British Columbia [Photo by Russell Hartlaub, used with permission]
The open pit (background) and waste-rock piles (middle) of the Highland Valley Copper Mine at Logan Lake, British Columbia [Photo by Russell Hartlaub, used with permission]

Toxic copper-nickel sulfide mining is once again threatening Superior National Forest (SNF). The United States Forest Service (USFS)  is closing a comment period on its  School Trust Land Exchange Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) on October 10, 2017. The USFS, already planning a land exchange with PolyMet for its proposed toxic open pit sulfide mine, is now preparing to trade SNF acreage that would facilitate more such mining. This time it’s being done in the name of our school children. 

According to the DEIS, a portion of state trust lands located within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), but not producing money for the trust, would be exchanged for USFS land  outside of the BWCAW. Parcels for the land exchange, hand-picked by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR)  as having the greatest potential to generate money, include the Teck Resources Mesaba Copper-Nickel Project. Teck’s deposits are the largest of the known sulfide mineral deposits in the state.

Teck’s mineral deposits lie between those of PolyMet and Twin Metals (Antofagasta)--what could become a massive connected industrial sulfide mine zone. While PolyMet’s proposed mine pits are poised to pollute the Lake Superior watershed, Teck and Twin Metals’  pollution would flow north to the Rainy River.  Because they are located on the Divide, both Teck and Twin Metals indicate they could place some of their toxic waste in the sacrificial Lake Superior watershed.

The USFS, in conjunction with the DNR, is willing to condone and facilitate the pollution of two international waterways and a drinking water aquifer for the “benefit of our school children.”

Purpose:  To Eliminate Environmental Review

Removing lands from Federal  to state administration would result in the loss of important protections, including the Weeks Act and other Acts prohibiting strip mining, Endangered Species Act provisions, and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review and appeal process. The underlying purpose of this exchange would be to benefit multinational mining companies by removing Federal protections and oversight.


Historically, the U.S. government claimed native lands as U.S. property, pushing Indian Tribes onto reservation lands. As compensation, the government granted  them Treaty Rights for fishing, hunting, and gathering. Superior National Forests lands being designated for the School Trust Land Exchange are part of the Treaty of 1854. Today our state government continues the historic record of the taking of indigenous lands--in this case with the underlying agenda of turning them over to foreign mining companies.

When Minnesota was granted statehood in 1858, two sections out of each township were given to the state for the benefit of schools. The state determined that it could use, lease, or sell the land to raise money for the trust. A Permanent School Fund (PSF) was established from these revenues, with the interest money to be distributed to public schools on a statewide basis. According to the Minnesota   Constitution, the PSF, not the trust lands themselves, is to be managed for maximum benefit for current and future beneficiaries.

In 1881, an amendment to the state constitution allowed Swamp Lands to be sold and the proceeds placed in the PSF. About one-third of the Swamp Lands were regranted to railroad companies to aid in the construction of their rail lines. This departure from the terms of the Swampland Grant was apparently never questioned or challenged by Congress (Minnesota Historical Society archives). Over one quarter of the state lands within the BWCAW are Swamp Act lands (23,000 acres). Today, swamp lands are known for their ability to filter and absorb water, and sequester carbon and mercury, and not for their ability to generate income.

The majority of school trust lands were sold for development and agriculture by the end of the 1800’s.The remaining trust lands are primarily located in the northern part of the state that has been largely spared from industrial pollution. But now, even while Governor Mark Dayton speaks against “highly toxic sulfide waste,” the DNR agency under him is choosing to promote sulfide mining to augment the PSF. Money for our school children is being used as an excuse for converting our remaining high quality wetlands, forests, and watersheds into an unpopular polluting sulfide mining district.

Other Options for the Trust

The USFS has the option of buying the state land within the BWCAW. In fact, in 1997 the entire Minnesota Federal legislative delegation supported such a buy-out, and Federal funds were available.  But the Iron Range delegation vetoed the plan, demanding a complete land exchange instead. The result has been a loss of interest money for our school children over the past 20 years.  

When the BWCAW was established in 1978, the retention of state trust lands allowed for the sharing of state and Federal management. Since 10% of campsites in the BWCAW are located on trust lands, the USFS could share a portion of camper fees with the trust as part of their user permit system. These funds could have been adding money to the PSF over the years.  

But the push to open a sulfide mine district in Superior National Forest runs deep within the ranks of the DNR Land and Minerals Division and state and local politicians. In 2010, a committee of state, Federal, and local officials along with select special interest groups was formed and agreed to a compromise “hybrid” package that would include a 2/3 buy-out of state lands within the BWCAW, and a 1/3 exchange.  

Currently, there is no money available for a purchase of state lands by the USFS.  But the partial exchange of  30,000 plus acres as included in the DEIS would give the state its most coveted parcels--including for Teck and other companies who need land for mines or mine infrastructure. As summarized in 2012 by then state Representative David Dill, “We should mine, log, and lease the hell out of that land that we get in the [ex]change.”  

In addition, the remaining 2/3 of the trust lands, along with all of the state’s mineral rights, would remain in the BWCAW, leaving the door open for future exchanges and controversies, resulting in a continued loss of Superior National Forest lands located in the headwaters of the Rainy and St. Louis Rivers. The USFS, under the Week’s Act, has the responsibility of protecting such headwaters. Turning the land over to the state removes such protections. Instead it allows the state to proceed with plans to promote sulfide mining, overriding environmental protections in favor of corporate dollars.  Nowhere is there any mention of the health and well-being of our school children.

Example of a dead snow goose landing on the toxic Berkeley pit. Toxic sulfide mining open pits may be in Minnesota’s future. Rich Marvin/Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology
Example of a dead snow goose landing on the toxic Berkeley pit. Toxic sulfide mining open pits may be in Minnesota’s future. Rich Marvin/Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology

Health impacts

The DEIS ignores the health impacts that result from mining activity.  Sulfide mining is known to leach toxic heavy metals, including copper, nickel, cobalt, zinc, cadmium, arsenic, and mercury. Childhood exposure to toxic  metals leaching from mine waste into water supplies can result in learning difficulties, memory impairment, damage to the nervous system, and behavioral problems such as aggressiveness and hyperactivity.  

Humans most affected by mercury are young children and pregnant women.  The primary effect of methylmercury in the body is impaired neurological development.   Cognitive thinking, memory, attention, language, fine and visual spatial skills may be affected. Fetuses and young children, because their nervous systems are still developing, are four or five times more sensitive to mercury than adults. Damage occurring before birth or in infancy can cause a child to be late in beginning to walk and talk and may cause lifelong learning problems. (Minnesota Pollution Control Agency)

Those espousing the idea of exchanging land in order to maximize dollars for the school trust fund are doing so at the risk of damaging the health and well being of children living in northeast Minnesota, including Fond du Lac, Cloquet, and Duluth.
Minnesota agencies and industry have not been able to control pollution coming off taconite tailings basins, all of which are designed to leach and all of which will require perpetual treatment. Despite these existing unmanageable problems, our state politicians are bent on forcing an even more polluting sulfide mining industry down our throats. Perpetual and toxic pollution and  massive destruction of the environment is being hailed as helping our school children, present and future, who have no voice in these decisions.

Current Fund Status

The PSF currently generates about $30 per pupil per year.  Out of a state budget of approximately $9,000 per pupil, PSF money accounts for less than .003%. Since interest money from the PSF is distributed on a state wide basis, most of the money goes to the most populated areas.  Public schools in the metro area receive the most  trust money at the expense of risking  the health of children living in the Arrowhead. In addition, public lands which are now available to all citizens are at risk of being converted from forests to a toxic mine zone that, once depleted, will have no other uses. 

The PSF is worth about $1.2 billion as of June 30, 2015.  Meanwhile, the price for the clean-up of Teck Resources British Columbia Trail  plant, as hazardous metals flow down the Columbia River into Washington state, has been pegged as high as $1 billion. 
 Who will ultimately be responsible for perpetual treatment and  clean-up costs of industrial mining on school trust lands? Will it be the school trust; the general public? 

Deficiencies of the DEIS

In seeking to facilitate the land exchange, the DEIS contains critical omissions. There is no mention of mining, and the DEIS fails to identify any of the actual environmental impacts of the exchange. Teck’s delineated deposits are not named. The parcels are addressed as having mineral potential, but that no mining is foreseeable, ignoring extensive bulk sampling undertaken by Teck in 2008-9. 

The School Trust Land Exchange project constitutes a “connected action” under NEPA to future mining projects on the Superior National Forest. The proposed land exchange is part of a connected action involving numerous mining projects across the SNF, and the impacts from mining must be included in the environmental review of the School Trust Lands Exchange. 

While acknowledging that wildlife may be impacted by development, the effects are deemed negligible.  The same goes for impacts of climate change.  No environmental impacts are considered regarding increased logging rotation and potential logging of old-growth forest, nor the resulting impacts to wildlife, if Federal land is handed over to the state for maximum financial return. No mention is made of the elimination of satisfying recreational opportunities due to changes in land ownership, including portions that the state could sell for private development. Ecological and watershed concerns are left to fall by the wayside. 

 It appears that the USFS  simply wants to wash its hands of any controversial developments appearing on the horizon, and would rather skirt the issues by agreeing to a toxic land exchange.  In the name of our school children.

Time for Citizen Awareness and Action

We must oppose the give-away of state and Federal lands to foreign mining conglomerates and the sacrificing  of our waterways and forests for the sake of our school children.  
If our state leaders feel compelled to turn northeast Minnesota into a polluting industrial sulfide mine zone in order to further their own political interests, they have no business doing so on the backs of our   school children.  And the USFS shows no backbone by going along with the plan. 
The School Trust Lands Exchange DEIS is inadequate..

Ask the USFS to reject the damaging  Boundary Waters School Trust exchange. In short, all aspects of the exchange favor mining and logging interests and keep the public in the dark about the real impacts.  
Ask the USFS to chose the No Action alternative.
Reject the land exchange and protect the integrity of Superior National Forest.
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