The "roadless rule" and state land: a special caseby Stephanie Hemphill, Minnesota Public Radio
A California judge's ruling reinstating the "Clinton roadless rule" has complicated the debate about the use of forests in Minnesota.
The roadless rule gives greater protection to remote parts of national forests. But inside Minnesota's two national forests, there are many acres of land that belong to the state, counties, and private owners. And the roadless rule doesn't apply to them.
In some cases, state law requires the land to provide revenue for Minnesota's schools. Land managers have to balance competing interests.
Lutsen, Minn. — The Caribou Trail winds away from Lake Superior near Lutsen. It climbs gradually into the rugged land just south of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
About 15 miles inland, if you park your car and walk a ways, you notice the soft ground shifting under each footstep. You're walking on a floating bog.
To the east is Swamp Lake. To the north, the headwaters of the Cascade River. If you don't get lost, you can walk four miles before you get to another road.
Clyde Hanson is a volunteer with the Sierra Club. He says this area should be left alone. He says it's too special to be logged.
"It's special just because of the diversity of plants, and the bog plants that you don't find much in Minnesota any more," he says. "It's special because it's one big chunk that's not bisected by roads. It's got a moat around most of its sides. It hasn't been touched by humans in a long time."
The Superior National Forest includes this land in its inventory of roadless areas. For Clyde Hanson, that offers hope that someday it could be designated by Congress as a wilderness area, and protected permanently from logging and other development.
But there are small chunks of land near Swamp Lake that are owned by the state of Minnesota. And the DNR plans to offer them to loggers.
Under federal law, the Forest Service must let the state have access to these so-called in-holdings.
Hanson says access means a road, and a road would destroy the wilderness character of this place.
"That would take away its magic of being an intact interior forest," he says. "Where some bird species just need big areas of intact forest to feel comfortable enough to nest, to meet their needs for food and safety."
But the government years ago designated this land to meet the needs of school children.
Before Minnesota became a state, the federal government reserved two sections in each township to be used for education. In southern Minnesota, nearly all that land was eventually sold off for farms. But in the northern forests, the state manages it by selling timber-cutting rights.
The DNR's Tom Baumann says it's written right in the state constitution that the DNR must manage the land to bring in money for schools.
"If we just were to say, 'whatever ends up in a roadless area, we in essence write off management in those,' that has implications for the citizens of Minnesota," he says.
Baumann admits it's not a lot of money compared with the state's entire education budget. It's $7-to-$10 million a year, which is less than half of a percent of the money the state distributes to schools each year.
Clyde Hanson says the land itself is more valuable than that.
"I think it can be argued that the educational value of these places, the existence value of these special places has as much a place in our public education system as cutting them down, selling them for pulp, and buying pencils in two schools," he says.
This isn't the only place in the forest where state land will be logged in spite of being in a federally-designated roadless area. Nearly a third of the twenty-two roadless areas in the Superior National Forest have state in-holdings that are slated for logging.
And scattered within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, there's 93,000 acres of school trust land. No one can build roads there. So the state has been trying to swap land in the BWCAW for land outside the wilderness. But the federal rules are so complicated, a swap is hard to pull off.
The DNR's Tom Baumann says they've been working on some land exchanges for years.
"It's a fairly elaborate process the federal government has for these types of exchanges," he says. "So we're aware of that, but we still think it's worth the effort to try to pursue some of these that will help each of us reach our management goals."
Meanwhile, the DNR is conducting a biological survey in each county of Minnesota. Environmentalists like Clyde Hanson want the agency to postpone logging in roadless areas until the survey can show whether there are unusual species or habitats worthy of special protection.
But the survey takes money too. The earliest it could be started in the headwaters of the Cascade River would be 2008. The DNR plans to offer the land for logging two years later.
- Morning Edition, 10/20/2006, 7:21 a.m.