After Biden and Walz administrative actions, Boundary Waters permanent protection effort full steam ahead
(Ely, MN)--After major actions by the Biden and Walz administrations, the effort to permanently protect the Boundary Waters continues. Last fall the Biden administration announced it was restarting a canceled study on the impacts of sulfide-ore copper mining on the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (Boundary Waters or Wilderness) that could lead to a 20-year moratorium on copper mining in the Wilderness watershed. In January the Biden administration canceled two key federal mineral leases that an internal review found had been unlawfully renewed to Chilean mining conglomerate Antofagasta's Twin Metals. In February, the Walz administration ended consideration of the Twin Metals mine plan citing the loss of federal leases and, importantly, its concerns about Twin Metals’ plan to store hundreds of millions of tons of toxic waste on state public lands located on the shore of Birch Lake, which flows directly into the Boundary Waters.
With the current Twin Metals mine proposal dead, the effort to permanently protect the Boundary Waters is moving ahead full steam. This summer the US Forest Service is expected to deliver an environmental assessment regarding the twenty-year copper mining ban in the Wilderness watershed with possible action by the Department of Interior before the fall. In September the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is required to present to Ramsey County District Court a determination on whether allowing sulfide-ore copper mining in the same watershed of the Boundary Waters fails the state's statutory obligation to protect the pristine nature of the Wilderness.
Ultimately nothing is stronger than legislation, and in a recent commentary in MinnPost Duluth-native Richard Moe, former Chief of Staff to Vice President Mondale and Special Assistant to President Carter, forcefully argued on the need for these lasting protections in law, writing:
Passing a permanent protection bill based on [Rep. Betty McCollum's legislation] would be the culmination of more than 100 years of conflict between those who see the Boundary Waters as nothing more than a place to be exploited by industrial enterprises and those who see it as a place of refuge to be preserved for future generations. Protective measures began in 1902 when President Theodore Roosevelt saw the place for what it was and protected 500,000 acres from disposition to private parties. Development interests have persisted, but the tide has rolled inexorably toward greater protection. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act of 1978, which took some steps toward protecting the watershed from mining, is the most recent of several federal enactments in the last century that have enhanced protection for the Wilderness.
Despite the overwhelming momentum for finally achieving permanent protection for America's most visited Wilderness and the thousands of jobs it brings to the region, opposition remains in the form of Antofagasta backer, U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber. Stauber, who voted against the bipartisan Infrastructure and Jobs Act yet still tried to claim credit for projects it brought to his district, took the opportunity of President Biden's recent visit to nearby Superior, WI to bizarrely claim the president's policies were hurting the middle class, citing the Twin Metals lease decision.
Becky Rom, National Chair of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, responded in a commentary published in the Duluth News Tribune. After recounting a litany of anti-middle class votes by Rep. Stauber– including votes against the infrastructure bill, against organized labor, against affordable child care and health care, and much more–Rom asks:
What does Stauber vote for? Tax cuts for the very wealthy. Who does Stauber support instead of middle-class families? One is a billionaire family living in Santiago, Chile, which wants to build the Antofagasta/Twin Metals mine on public land upstream from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness…
…Contrast Stauber’s polemics with the approach of the Biden administration, which recently unveiled major investments in domestic industries that produce critical minerals and materials. The policy strongly supports domestic production while providing that special places, such as the watershed of the Boundary Waters, must be off-limits to mining and protected from mining impacts, stating: “Our federal land managers, in consultation with other decision makers, must have discretion to reject projects that threaten sensitive ecosystems, tribal resources, and communities where pollution prevention and mitigation are not possible. Agencies should retain and use their authority to withdraw lands from mineral entry, where necessary.”
While opposition from Stauber and others more concerned with the corporate coffers of international mining companies than the sustainable local economy of Wilderness edge communities is expected to continue, there is hope on the horizon that a nation once again committed to the rule of law and making land use decisions rooted in sound science will in the end win the day and keep the Boundary Waters pristine and secure for future generations.