WASHINGTON — A bill that would put a congressional stamp of approval on an exchange of 86,000 acres in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of state-owned school trust lands for an equal amount of land outside the BWCAW was passed by the U.S. House on Wednesday.
The measure, authored by 8th District Republican U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack, would provide more education money for Minnesota students. It is a carbon-copy of a bill passed by the Minnesota Legislature last session on a bipartisan 90-41 vote before being signed into law by DFL Gov. Mark Dayton.
But congressional action is needed to prevent federal officials from delaying a land deal once it has been worked out under the state bill.
It still needs Senate action and then the signature of President Barack Obama.
Minnesota Democratic U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken would not answer directly a question of whether they support the House measure passed on Wednesday, but did endorse a land swap in some form yet to be spelled out. And, they said, they are collaborating on legislation.
“I understand how important this is for our schools and local economies in northern Minnesota, and that’s why I continue to support a land exchange and am working with similar legislation with Senator Franken to get it done,” Sen. Klobuchar said in an e-mailed statement to the Mesabi Daily News following a call to her Washington office.
A statement from Sen. Franken mirrored Klobuchar’s.
“A land exchange would benefit Minnesota’s schools, and help our state’s economy. “I have been working on similar legislation with Senator Klobuchar and I look forward to moving this process through the Senate,” Franken said, also in response to a call to his office by the MDN.
The bill received about three hours of debate and voting on amendments, carried on C-SPAN, before it was approved on mostly a partisan vote — a couple Democrats in support and a few Republicans against.
“Thirty-four years is enough,” Cravaack said on the House floor, referring to the 1978 law that created the BWCAW and locked in the nearly 90,000 acres of school trust fund lands. The 1978 legislation meant those parcels could not be logged or mined to create revenue that would be directed to benefit Minnesota schoolchildren.
Opponents, including Minnesota 4th District Congresswoman Betty McCollum and 5th District Congressman Keith Ellison, argued that the bill is not necessary because of the state process already in place and it would bypass the public because it waives the National Environmental Policy Act, which was enacted in 1969, and would require more review before it could be enacted.
Cravaack and his supporters refuted their objections item-by-item on the House floor.
• When McCollum said it was “completely unnecessary” because the state law had already set the process in motion, Republican Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah said: “The state wants to do it quickly, the federal Forest Service does not. It helps the kids of Minnesota to take it away from an agency that moves at glacial speed.”
• When Democratic Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona lamented the waiver of a NEPA provision, saying supporters want to “shroud it in darkness,” and adding that he felt “I’m living in an alternative reality,” Republican Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington said he was “amazed” by the debate and amendments being offered. “This is really simple. There’s a deficiency in trust lands for Minnesota schools. This seeks to correct that and nothing more. “They (opponents) don’t trust Minnesotans to make the right decisions for trust lands. Rep. Cravaack is doing right by his legislation.”
• When Rep. McCollum said the bill would be a “failure to acknowledge (Indian) treaty rights of the treaty of 1854, Rep. Hastings quickly corrected her. “The federal government has the duty to uphold treaty obligations. They will be upheld and not changed by this bill.
• When Democratic Rep. Rush Holt of New Jersey said it was “an attack on NEPA,” Rep. Washington said with NEPA “a bureaucrat could overrule an act of Congress and would create more red tape and bureaucracy.”
• When Rep. Holt said NEPA makes it “so inconvenient to deal with a pesky public,” Rep. Cravaack said NEPA would “undermine the purpose by giving feds the option to continue to delay. Stalling (the) process further helps no one.” Cravaack also said “the public has spoken. It has the support of the 8th District of Minnesota” with only “fringe groups, many from out of state,” against it.
Here’s what the Environmental Protection Agency website says about NEPA: “NEPA establishes the requirement that all federal agencies’ funding or permitting decisions be made with full consideration of the impact to the natural and human environment. And it requires agencies disclose these impacts to interested parties and the general public. The central element in the environmental review process is a rigorous evaluation of alternatives including the ‘no action’ alternative.”
• When Rep. McCollum said repeatedly that there was not a map related to the issue, Rep. Cravaack responded with a map of the area in question alongside him. “Well, here’s the map,” he said, pointing out the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Forest Service have the map and it’s also available to the public online.
In a telephone interview Wednesday night, Cravaack said he was extremely pleased that after 34 years a bill to “free these school trust fund lands” had passed the House.
He also said that one opponent who said the bill would take dollars away from three counties was “deliberately misrepresenting” the facts. “Cook, Lake and St. Louis counties will not be shortchanged. It will be revenue neutral,” with the only new revenue going to Minnesota schools through mining and logging in the lands opened up outside the BWCAW for development through the exchange.
“I don’t know how people can be against this bill. It doesn’t detract from the Boundary Waters at all, while providing more revenue for our schoolchildren. That’s a win-win,” Cravaack said.
The congressman praised the efforts of state Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Pike Township, and Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, to get the state legislation approved.
“They have been very supportive and I worked with them throughout the entire process. Tommy Rukavina has been determined for a long time on this issue.
Cravaack initially had a value-for-value bill that he “tossed to adopt the state plan.
“We’re getting this done,” he said.