Long term issues need long term solutions

“Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”

Article 3 Northwest Territory Ordinance

The ordinances of the Northwest Territory were the law of the land in Minnesota up until our statehood. Provisions for funding of education were an important part of this law that carried us into our statehood. When Congress admitted states in the Northwest Territory into the union, they set aside a portion of each township land that was meant to support funding of education. Ohio was the first state to be carved out of the Northwest Territory and one section of each township was dedicated to school funding. Upon the sale of that section the money was to be spent on supporting education. Similar donations were made for Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin when they were admitted into the Union. For Minnesota, that grant was doubled with two sections from each township being dedicated to education.

Eventually Minnesota chose to place the proceeds of these sales into a trust account where the interest would be spent on education in order to make the sale of the lands a permanent dedication to this cause. In time, other lands were dedicated to support this trust fund including state land use for iron ore mining. This mining plan would produce most of the money that would populate the various education trust funds.

This effort seemed like a noble endeavor but unfortunately due to the greed of land speculators, most of the trust fund land was sold way below market value. Also, large timber companies in the late 1800s started a practice of removing the timber without paying for the land with the proceeds of the leases of land going to the trust funds. Most of these timber leases were well below market value and left the land in a wasted state. After years of mismanagement and dangerous forest fires, the state finally figured out that long-term careful forest management would return more sustainable profits. They recognized that a quick return often met long-term liabilities that did not benefit the trust funds or the citizens of Minnesota.

It has been over a century since this policy of long-term management has taken root. At present, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) manages these lands. Most of the remaining land is found in northern Minnesota and is managed for timber.  Unfortunately, this sensible practice of preserving the remaining school trust fund lands in a sensible long-term forestry management policy is under assault in the 2012 Legislature. Desperate to immediately increase funding for education, several legislators have been pushing for a change in the forest management of school trust fund lands. The School Board Association has promoted several pieces of legislation that call for immediate profits over long-term management harkening back to the failed practices of a century ago.

HF2244 is presently in a conference committee. It would weaken the present oversight system within the DNR that has positive citizen involvement and give it to a legislative commission. They would appoint an individual to oversee the management of these properties with an eye towards greater short-term economic returns. Fortunately, the Governor’s office and DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr have been trying to temper the rush towards short-term gain.

Probably most disturbing is an effort by several in the legislature on a bipartisan basis to raid the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment dedicated dollars to fund these education trusts. They want to mismanage the land for short-term profits and also raid the dedicated funds to prop up this shortsighted endeavor. Instead of short-term gains, they need to exercise good long-term forest management. It has been proven that this good management will produce a greater return over a longer period of time. Additionally, such management also produces positive benefits for wildlife habitat along with reducing pollution.  It also promotes tourism.  This is truly one of those few circumstances where you can have your cake and eat it too. State leaders just need to be patient and vigilant in the preservation of these important assets for children in the long term instead of just trying to find another budget gimmick to cover their fiscal mismanagement.

About John Tuma

John is a former state legislator and litigation attorney. He served in the Minnesota House of Representatives for eight years from the Northfield area, beginning in 1994. Elected as a Republican, John was known for his independent thinking and ability to work across party lines. He is well-known in Minnesota state government circles.
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