As a member of the Education Finance Committee, I had the opportunity last week to travel around the state to review how some lands which were dedicated to our schools during the establishment of Minnesota are being managed and cared for. Since education funding comprises half of our general fund expenditures, I wanted to share some of this information with you.
BRIEF HISTORY OF SCHOOL TRUST LANDS
Our state constitution provided for the dedication of two sections of land in every township (which is comprised of thirty-six sections) to be reserved in a trust for the education of our children. Today, there are more than 2-1/2 million acres of trust land remaining in Minnesota which are reserved for our children’s education. In certain instances and over the years, some trust lands have been sold or exchanged for other property. Generally speaking, during the land survey of Minnesota, sections 16 & 36 were reserved for our schools. Some of this land within a section may have inadvertently landed in the middle of a lake or a swamp, while others may have become prime locations for towns or cities. Most all land in Minnesota today remains in use, much as it did in our beginning, as farms and forests.
Today, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is charged with the responsibility of being the trustee of all school trust lands and acts as the trust’s fiduciary for the benefit of our schools. As fiduciary, the DNR has as its first priority an obligation and a duty of loyalty to manage these lands for the benefit of our schools first, with other permitted uses secondary to its mission.
FOREST LAND MANAGEMENT
School trust lands which are forested are managed in order to maximize revenues from timber harvesting. Sustainable forest management practices require long term management plans which need to be executed often times over a lifetime. Foresters are probably best described as stewards since much of their work will only be realized by the following generation of people. Accordingly, the timber harvests that we are currently able to perform today are the result of the stewardship that preceded us.
Net proceeds from annual harvests upon school trust lands are deposited into a school trust cash account which today has a fund balance of nearly one billion dollars. Only the interest and dividends of this fund are distributed to all school districts throughout the state. Currently, the school trust account provides approximately 28 million dollars per year to school districts across the state which is distributed equally based upon enrollment numbers within each school district.
Modern equipment, new technologies and research are improving reforestation and harvest rates, while also better managing and matching species to soils, slopes and climate.
PRECIOUS MINERALS AND MINING
Recent geological exploration has resulted in the discovery of the existence of precious metals including nickel, gold, copper and platinum in Minnesota. Most of these deposits have been discovered along what geologists believe is the edge of a very ancient water basin. Many of these deposits are located in far northern Minnesota. In addition, the quality of these discovered mineral deposits are determined to be of a higher grade and quality than the ordinary deposits which would support mining operations. Some of these deposits happen to lay upon school trust lands while other deposits lay upon private land.
Preliminary estimates suggest that royalties for minerals extracted upon school trust lands could exceed one billion dollars into the school trust account.
ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES AND CONCERNS
The precious metal deposits recently discovered lay deep below the surface in a strata of bedrock in deposits which are in a vein approximately 50 feet thick and nearly a half mile below the surface, similar to the depths of the Sudan mine which has been extracting iron ore. The permitting process requires extensive impact studies and environmental reviews. I learned during the field trip that the first environmental impact statement (EIS) may be released during the coming weeks.
The permitting process for some applicants is in year six, while some owners of mineral deposits have not yet begun or started the application process for mining operations. Many questions remain concerning the impact of this potential activity and further study of issues known and yet to be determined will need to be adequately addressed. In order for this proposal and permit request to proceed, it will be necessary to satisfy the central question of whether or not this activity can coexist in harmony with the existing uses and not harm the environment and water quality of a very special part of Minnesota.
Have a safe, enjoyable autumn. I hope that you will all take time to marvel at the beauty that surrounds us here in our district with our lakes and fall color during my favorite time of year.