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Minn. Landowners Livid Over Mineral Contracts

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — There might be hidden treasures under Ron Brodigan’s land, and he’s not happy about that at all.

Almost half of the 260 acres near Isabella owned by Brodigan and his son could be subject to drilling based on leases the state awarded last spring to companies that search for valuable minerals. Under Minnesota law, landowners have little say in the process and don’t get a cut of the profits, even if they eventually lose their land.

The state’s Executive Council, made up of the governor and other top state officers, voted 5-0 in June to send the leases back to the Department of Natural Resources for more work after Brodigan and other landowners objected.

The council was supposed to revisit the issue at its regular meeting Sept. 7. But Gov. Mark Dayton met Thursday with Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr and Iron Range Resources Commissioner Tony Sertich, and they decided to push the discussion back until a special meeting in October, Dayton spokeswoman Katie Tinucci said.

Tinucci said the Executive Council promised the affected landowners in June that they would get adequate notice of the next meeting when the leases would come up. The delay will allow the state to mail notices to the landowners next week after the date is firmed up, she said.

But Brodigan speculated the DNR just wanted to buy more time so it could decide how to handle the increasingly contentious issue and defeat the landowners. Many landowners were ready to drive down to St. Paul next week for what was expected to be a packed meeting, he said.

It’s an often overlooked fact that the state holds the mineral rights under much of the privately owned land in Minnesota and doesn’t need a landowner’s consent to authorize prospecting or even mining on that property. Ordinary landowners generally can’t buy their mineral rights. Usually those go to serious bidders, allowing the state to collect royalties on any significant finds.

It wasn’t much of an issue until recently when interest began rising in the billions of dollars’ worth of copper, nickel and other nonferrous minerals believed to lie under the forests, lakes, streams and swamps of northeastern Minnesota that may now be economical to mine. Brodigan said he has bought and sold a lot of land in the area over the decades and never thought twice about the mineral rights.

“It’s nice country. So far. It’s about to change,” Brodigan said.

Brodigan, who owns a log-building school and a small resort on Sand Lake in sparsely populated Lake County, said it’s been a struggle to get information out of the DNR. He said he finally resorted to filing requests under the state’s Data Practices Act to find out what the agency is going to present to the Executive Council. He said he hadn’t heard back as of Thursday.

“They hold their information close to the chest,” Brodigan said. “They don’t want anyone to know anything. They work in the dark.”

The DNR awarded the 77 leases covering about 22,000 mostly publicly owned acres to four mining companies in an auction last April, but such leases require approval from the Executive Council, which is comprised of the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state and state auditor. That’s usually a routine process. Last June’s meeting was the first time since 1982 that that the council failed to approve a lease package.

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie and State Auditor Rebecca Otto declined to comment on the issue this week, while Attorney General Lori Swanson did not respond to a request for comment made through her spokesman.

Larry Kramka, director of the DNR’s Division of Land and Minerals, said there are records of 83 people who paid property taxes on the land affected by the leases.

The state charges lease-holders about $1.25 per acre each year. Bidders compete on what they’re willing to pay for any ore they eventually mine, Kramka said. Those returns are unpredictable because nobody knows what the exploration companies are going to find, he said.

DNR isn’t required to notify landowners that it has sold the mineral rights under their property, but the companies are required to compensate landowners for damages they cause, Kramka said. Not every lease will lead to drilling on someone’s property because sometimes the companies never exercise their rights.

Brodigan said prospectors started drilling a few miles from his home last Saturday under a lease approved in previous years.

“It can be a pretty noisy affair. … It’s a ground-shaking thing,” he said.

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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