The Boundary Waters Canoe Area of northeastern Minnesota is one of America’s most loved and most used wilderness landscapes. As far back as the first years of the 20th century, Americans recognized the unique nature of this place and began efforts to protect and conserve it. The creation of the multi-use Superior National Forest in 1909 encompassed almost 4 million acres. Piecemeal efforts to protect the more watery parts of the forest – less favored for logging or mining, but irreplaceable for fishing, trapping hunting and other pursuits – culminated in 1978 when the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act protected 1,090,000 acres of the region and set in motion one of the world’s most successful experiments in public lands conservation and recreation.
Adventuring in the BWCAW – fishing, traveling long distances by canoe (94 percent of visitors travel this way, and there are more than 1200 miles of canoe trails), exploring, camping and simply experiencing the wildlife and wonders of this vast watery wilderness draw more than 250,000 people per year. Beyond the simple beauty of the BWCAW, beyond the wildlife and watersheds, the restoration of the souls of all who travel within it, is a powerful arithmetic – this landscape is an essential part of Minnesota’s recreational economy, now $16.7 billion dollars per year-strong, sustaining 140,000 jobs that pay Minnesotans $4.5 billion in wages and salaries, bringing in more than $1.4 in state and local tax revenues. Seldom has the pragmatic conservation – and use – of a landscape been so profitable, or so much enjoyed.
But a serious management challenge for this wilderness expanse remains. When Minnesota was granted statehood in 1858, the federal government followed the same model that would be the norm for all Western states. An important part of that model was the granting of entire square miles of land (called sections, comprising 640 acres) to state ownership for the support of the public school system. These lands, known as school trust lands, were to be used as the state saw fit to generate income for the public schools. The lands could be logged, leased for grazing or mineral or energy development, sold outright, or any combination of uses, just so long as the revenue went to the schools. It was a successful and even brilliant plan to support and build the kind of educated citizens that can carry on a republic, and it has mostly worked.
Within the BWCAW are approximately 82,400 acres of these school trust lands. They are not suitable for logging, and they cannot produce the money that they are mandated, by law, to produce for Minnesota schools. These school trust lands are basically marooned. The solution – which was agreed upon by all invested parties in 2012, after decades of debate – is to use Land and Water Conservation Fund money to buy two-thirds of the school trust lands for incorporation into BWCAW. This is a critical component of a multi-partner effort that will also allow Minnesota to acquire lands outside the BWCAW that will produce the badly needed revenue for the schools. This project depends entirely on the reauthorization and sufficient funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund by Congress.
State Trust Lands, credit State of Minnesota