by Dennis Dalman
A bill concerning school-trust lands authored by Rep. Tim O’Driscoll (R-Sartell) has generated both strong support and opposition among many state residents.
The bill, which has some bipartisan support, would take away management of school-trust lands from the Department of Natural Resources and transfer that management to a 12-member, bipartisan legislative commission.
Some proponents claim the DNR has been too restrictive in managing school-trust lands that could, if under other management, generate more money for schools in the state. Opponents claim a change of management would lead to forest and mineral exploitation of those lands, resulting in long-term environmental degradation.
School-trust lands are those set aside to be managed for uses, such as forestry, farming or mining, that generate funds to be used by the state for schools. At one time, there were 8.3-million acres of school-trust lands in Minnesota.
Now there are only about 2.5 million acres of school-trust lands, almost entirely in the Arrowhead region of northeast Minnesota. Income generated on those lands brings in, at most, about $27 million annually, which is distributed to school districts throughout Minnesota via the Permanent School Fund, administered through the State Board of Investment.
The concept of school-trust land is as old as the State of Minnesota, which became a state in 1858. When states were founded, the federal government mandated Sections 16 and 36 of every township in a state be set aside for uses to benefit schools. In many cases, in those more agrarian days, the land would be farmed and revenues generated would fund and maintain schools – often country schoolhouses.
A township is 6 miles by 6 miles for a total of 36 square miles – thus, each township had two square miles (sections 16 and 36) of school-trust lands.
Throughout the years, many of those lands were sold, and the proceeds were used for school needs.
The remaining school-trust lands – those in northern and northeastern Minnesota – are located mainly in forests or swampy or rocky areas. Lumbering and limited mining operations bring in annual revenue.
Throughout the years, many school-trust lands were swapped for other lands.
Proponents of O’Driscoll’s bill say a changed management could increase the annual revenue by at least 10 percent, which would further help schools. According to State Rep. Tom Rukkina (D-Virginia), an increase in mining – mainly copper mining – could double the size of the land-trust school fund within the next decade – to at least $60 million. Those who favor a change in management point to Utah’s success story.
Sixteen years ago, a new management of school-trust lands in that state encouraged revenue-producing operations on those lands, and revenue rose from $18 million 16 years ago to $1.3 billion, according to the Utah director of school and trust lands.
However, Minnesota DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr pointed out the Utah school-trust acreage is very different from the lands in northeast Minnesota. In Utah, much of the acreage is grassland for grazing and land from which oil and gas is produced.
North and South Dakota have an abundance of school-trust lands, many of which are rented out to ranchers so they can graze cattle on them.
In Minnesota, in addition to the 2.5-million acres in the northeast region, there are also 1 million acres of mineral rights administered by the DNR.
In the last two years, revenue from school-trust lands brought in about $55 million for state schools, an amount that supplemented the state’s school budget of about $15 billion for K-12 education. That amounts to about $26 per pupil in additional state aid for schools.
To increase school-trust funding, some Iron Range politicians are suggesting those lands could be mined more aggressively to generate revenue. The DNR, they claim, is too restrictive and too cautious about allowing mining operations.
But opponents claim the DNR is justified in its caution. Lowell Olson of St. Cloud, a retired physics teacher at Apollo High School, has been involved with local parks and county planning for many years. He is also a member of the St. Cloud Area Environmental Council.
Taking away management from the DNR, Olson said, could be a recipe for disaster. He suspects it would open the way for mining operations that could scar the land and pollute the waters of northeast Minnesota.
Olson said people should ask themselves several questions: Who is going to mine that area? Are they Minnesotans or people who live faraway or in other countries? Who is going to profit most from the mining? Who is going to clean up the messes?
Olson said mining exploration and an eagerness to start mining is likely the real impetus behind the push to change management from DNR to a legislative commission, which he thinks could be lobbied and swayed by mining interests.
“It reminds me of the Cap X oil pipeline proposed to come from Canada across the United States,” Lowell said. “Who’s going to benefit? Most or all of that oil will go to China.”
The O’Driscoll Bill
If the O’Driscoll-authored bill, known as HF (House File) 2244, is approved by the Minnesota Legislature, the DNR would lose management of school-trust lands beginning July 1, 2014.
By that time, a Permanent School Fund Commission would be established, comprised of 12 members: six senators (three from each party) and six House members (three from the majority party, three from the minority party.)
School-trust land revenue would be administered via a five-member Permanent School Fund Board whose members would be appointed by the governor with the advice and consent of the House and Senate, acting separately.
One line of the bill states, “It would require the trustee to manage lands and revenue in the most prudent and profitable manner possible, balancing short- and long-term interests.”
An amended form of the bill just recently passed the House; it is awaiting committee review in the Senate.
To find out more details about the bill, google Rep. Tim O’Driscoll. In the blank box at the left where it says “Legislation Get Bill,” type in HF2244 and click “Go.”