History of the Boundary Waters and its Protections

Apr 7, 2021
Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters
photo of boundary waters lake with pine tree in foreground

The Boundary Waters and Superior National Forest are Anishinaabe land. The Boundary Waters region and the Superior National Forest are within the 1854 Treaty Ceded Territory where Anishinaabe people (also known as Ojibwe or Chippewa) have lived for generations. The interconnected waterways across the Boundary Waters region have been important travel routes for thousands of years, prior to the arrival of fur traders and others from Europe who began to travel and settle in the region, displacing indigenous people.

The fight to protect these lands has been long and contentious, and continues today with the threat of sulfide-ore copper mining on lands in the headwaters of the Wilderness. 

The first U.S. government act of protection for this canoe country was in 1902 when the U.S. Land Office withdrew 500,000 acres in the future Boundary Waters from settlement. Between 1905 and 1908 General C.C. Andrews, Minnesota Forestry Commissioner, persuaded the U.S. Land Office to withdraw 659,700 more acres in the future Boundary Waters from settlement. 

President Theodore Roosevelt established the Superior National Forest in 1909 from previously withdrawn public domain lands while the Minnesota Legislature created a 1.2 million acre Superior Game Refuge, similar in area to the Superior National Forest and including most of the present Boundary Waters. Development of roads in the Superior National Forest led to concern about the development of the area, causing U.S. Agriculture Secretary W.M. Jardine to establish a 640,000 acres roadless wilderness area in a policy to “retain as much as possible of the land which has recreational opportunities of this nature as a wilderness.” Landmark federal and state legislation followed to further protect the area, including the Shipstead-Newton-Nolan Act of 1930, the Little Shipstead-Newton-Nolan Act of 1933, and the Thye-Blatnik Act of 1948.

In response to airplane landings and overflights that threatened the canoe country, in 1949, President Harry Truman signed an Executive Order which prohibited aircraft from flying over the area below 4,000 feet above sea level. These types of actions continued through the following decades leading up to the Wilderness Act of 1964. 

On September 3, 1964, the Wilderness Act was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. The Wilderness Act established the National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS) and is considered one of the most pivotal conservation efforts for America’s public lands. The Boundary Waters was included in the Wilderness Act as one of the original nine million acres of federal public lands in the NWPS. But the Wilderness Act allowed some incompatible activity to continue in  the Boundary Waters such as use of motor boats, mining, and some logging. 

These incompatible uses were addressed in the 1978 Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act, which was signed into law on October 21,1978 by President Jimmy Carter. The Boundary Waters Wilderness Act added 50,000 acres to the Boundary Waters to bring the Wilderness Area to 1,098,057 acres of protected land and waters in the Superior National Forest. 

Today, the fight to protect the Wilderness continues. While the Wilderness Area and the federal buffer area are protected from mining, the headwaters of the Wilderness is not. The Boundary Waters is threatened by proposals for toxic sulfide-ore copper mines in its headwaters, where all surface waters flow into the Wilderness. Pollution from this risky type of mining would degrade downstream waters and forests of the Boundary Waters, Voyageurs National Park, and Canada’s Quetico Park, and would irreversibly damage our beloved canoe country. 


Boundary Waters Timeline

1873 - Public domain lands in Minnesota withdrawn from General Mining Law of 1872

1909 - Superior National Forest established

1909 - Boundary Waters Treaty signed by Canada and the United States, requiring that neither country pollute boundary waters or waters that flow across the boundary

1946 - Congress authorizes mineral leasing on acquired national forest lands in Minnesota where leasing will not interfere with primary purposes for which the land was acquired

1950 - Contemplating granite, gravel, and iron ore mining that would not interfere with recreational uses, Congress authorizes mineral leasing on public domain national forest lands in Minnesota upon Forest Service consent  

1964 - Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) designated by the Wilderness Act

1966 - BLM issues to predecessor of Twin Metals Minnesota two federal preference right mineral leases (MNES 1352 and MNES 1353) covering nearly 5,000 acres of the Superior National Forest adjacent to the BWCAW for a primary term of 20 years 

1978 - Boundary Waters Wilderness Act bans mining within the Wilderness, establishes a 220,000-acre Mining Protection Zone along entry corridors, and further protects the BWCAW

1989 - Mineral Leases 1352 and 1353 renewed for 10 years

2004 - Mineral Leases 1352 and 1353 renewed for 10 years

Oct. 2012 - Twin Metals applies for a third 10-year renewal of 1352 and 1353

May 2012 - BLM issues 28 prospecting permits covering over 38,000 acres of the Superior National Forest in the BWCAW watershed 

Mar. 8, 2016 - Solicitor of the Department of the Interior Hilary Tompkins issues a legal opinion finding that BLM has discretion to grant or deny Twin Metals’ lease renewal application

Dec. 14, 2016 - Following a 30-day public comment period and two public meetings, Forest Service issues decision withholding its consent to renew 1352 and 1353 

Dec. 15, 2016 - BLM denies renewal of 1352 and 1353, and the leases expire

Jan. 19, 2017 - Forest Service files an application to withdraw from mineral leasing approximately 234,000 acres of Superior National Forest lands in the BWCAW watershed, initiating a 2-year segregation, and issues a notice of intent to prepare an environmental impact statement 

Mar.-July 2017 - Forest Service holds three public meetings on the proposed withdrawal, with approximately 2,700 people attending and 101 out of 157 speakers supporting withdrawal

Aug. 17, 2017 - Forest Service receives more than 125,000 public comments on the proposed withdrawal, with approximately 98% of the over 81,000 unique comments and 94% of the over 44,000 form comments favoring withdrawal 

Dec. 22, 2017 - Acting Principal Deputy Solicitor of the Department of the Interior Daniel Jorjani issues a legal opinion withdrawing and replacing the Tompkins opinion and finding that BLM lacked discretion to deny Twin Metals’ lease renewal application

Jan. 26, 2018 - Forest Service downgrades withdrawal study from an environmental impact statement to an environmental assessment and initiates a second public comment period

Feb. 28, 2018 - Forest Service receives an additional nearly 56,000 comments in favor of withdrawal; altogether approximately 98% of the over 180,000 comments received favored withdrawal 

May 2, 2018 - BLM rescinds its December 2016 denial of the renewal of 1352 and 1353 and reinstates the expired leases and Twin Metals’ renewal application

June 2018 - Three lawsuits filed in federal district court in DC challenging the reinstatement

Sept. 6, 2018 - Secretary of the Department of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announces in a press release that the Forest Service is cancelling its application for withdrawal, and the public process and development of an environmental assessment are terminated; the announcement followed statements by President Trump and Vice President Pence at rallies in Duluth, MN in June and August that they would “rescind the withdrawal” and are “rolling back the ban”