St. Louis County Board Supports BWCA Land Exchange

By KBJR News 1

December 18, 2012 Updated Dec 18, 2012 at 9:45 PM CDT

Ely, MN (NNCNOW.com) - The St. Louis County Board officially supports a bill that would swap state land in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area with federal land in the Superior National Forest.

They approved a resolution during their meeting Tuesday which puts their support behind the Boundary Waters Canoe Area land exchange bill, which was authored by Representative Chip Cravaack.

"We put our support behind this land exchange and all its intricacies," said Commissioner Steve Raukar.

"It passes because it matters to the people of this area," said Chair Keith Nelson.

In a 5 -1 vote, all but one commissioner, Commissioner Frank Jewell, gave their approval for the resolution. Commissioner Steve O'Neil, from the 2nd District, was not present at the meeting as he is recovering from surgery.

If passed, the bill would swap 86,000 acres of state land in the Boundary Water Canoe Area for federal land in the Superior National Forest.

Those in favor of the bill say it would provide money for education through use of the land in the trust. Before the BWCA was designated a wilderness area within the Superior National Forest in the 1970's, the land could be logged or mined for revenue which would be given to the state's public schools.

However, once the National Forest Service designated the area wilderness, it could no longer be used to make money. The land swap bill would change that. But those who are opposed to the bill say it's not as much about supporting schools as it is about making more land for mining.

"If you try to build an economy by selling off our natural resources you usually end up with a not very good economy," said community member, Bob Hammond of Soudan.

The more than 30 year land dispute took center stage at the meeting, with community members from both sides of the issue expressing their position.

"We do realize that we have a wonderful natural resource with the Boundary Waters and tourism is a big part of our economy, but it is not the only economy that keeps the communities going around the Iron Range,"
said Nancy McReally of Ely.

Commissioner Jewell said that he supports the growth of industry in the area, but does not believe the bill is the right solution.

"I'm in favor of ensuring that we have decent jobs in Northeastern Minnesota, but I don't necessarily equate the transfer of the lands of the boundary waters to the state as a jobs bill," said Jewell.

Commissioner Peg Sweeney voted in support of the resolution, but expressed concern over passing it during Tuesday's meeting, suggesting that the board should wait until reconvening in January.

Commissioner Mike Forsman (4th District) represents the area closest to where the land exchange would occur. He expressed support for the passage of the resolution.

Commissioner Chris Dahlberg (3rd District) also supported the passage of the resolution.

The support of the County Board is far from being the issue's last stop. It has yet to be approved by the Senate.

According to County Administrator Kevin Gray's recomendation letter to the Board, the hope is the support of the resolution will urge Congress, particularly the Minnesota delegation, to pass the land exchange bill.

Written for the web by Jennifer Austin.