Boundary Waters counties get good news about federal reimbursement for wilderness

Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness viewed from Honeymoon Bluff Trail near the Gunflint Trail, Cook County. (Photo by Superior National Forest)

The Forest Service has notified the three Minnesota counties that contain the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness that it will complete a new appraisal of the federal lands, reversing an earlier decision that would have meant big cuts in revenue to the counties.

The assessed value of the 1.1 million-acre wilderness dictates payments the federal government makes to Cook, Lake, and St. Louis Counties to compensate them for property taxes or other revenue the lands could otherwise generate. The announcement came Dec. 20, after pressure from local officials, Rep. Pete Stauber, and Senators Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith.

“This decision allows for a more thoughtful approach and time to revisit an appraisal process that is so critical to future federal funding for our region,” St. Louis County Board Chair Patrick Boyle said in a statement.

Not only will the BWCAW be reappraised, for the next two years while the process plays out, the counties will continue to receive payments equal to what they had been getting since 2009.

In July, officials in each county began discussing the effect on their 2020 budgets from proposed cuts in compensation. The land is appraised every 10 years as required by the 1948 Thye-Blatnik Act, and counties receive payments based on that value. They also started working together to argue for a higher valuation.

“Our Congressman Pete Stauber, and Senators Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, were instrumental in communicating our concerns to the USDA. Without their persistence, our payments would have been reduced by 53%,” Lake County Commissioner Rich Sve said. “I would like to also thank the Lake County staff, especially the County Assessor’s Office, for their diligent work on this issue outlining what we believe were omissions in the initial appraisal.”

For the past 10 years, for example, Cook County has received about $2.25 million per year. It pays for things like law enforcement, roads, and other critical county functions. Lake County anticipated about a 50 percent reduction in revenue based on the new appraisal, which would have required a 12 percent increase in county taxes. Last week, the county voted to raise taxes by 6 percent in anticipation of the budget impact, according to the Duluth News Tribune. WTIP reports Cook County passes a nearly 6 percent increase as well.

“It’s safe to say we’re not out of the woods yet,” interim Cook County administrator Rena Rogers told WTIP. “It probably leans in our favor that the new appraisal will be higher than the one we just received because I think we made a good case that it should have been.”

While the appraised value of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, where revenue-generating activities like logging, development, or mining are prohibited, rose steeply in 2009, the most recent valuation showed a 63 percent decline.

More information:

Forest Service proposes to cut compensation to Boundary Waters counties

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