Monday, February 4, 2019
Posted by
Colton Smith

Saving the Boundary Waters with Colton Smith

America’s most visited wilderness area is under threat. Here’s why it matters.

Colton Smith hosts the Emmy Award winning show “Rock The Park” on ABC, an educational show designed to educate and inform the public on America’s national parks and public lands. 

Over the last five years I’ve traveled to and through virtually every nook and cranny of this country, exploring our treasured national parks, monuments and forests. I host a television show on ABC meant to educate others on just how special the public lands we own and hold truly are. Hiking, paddling and climbing across the country, I’ve found that interwoven into every beautiful vista are the stories of people who call it home.  Now often the coexistence of humans and nature is harmonious, then there are instances where it’s a downright ugly battle. What I’ve ultimately learned is that just as our landscapes and cultures are incredibly diverse, so too, are the issues our environment faces. In order to understand them it takes the just pursuit of perspectives that differ from my own. Having been given a box seat to view and learn about the gamut of man vs nature battles currently ensuing, I’ve always made sure to seek that perspective.

Let me tell you we’re in a unique period of time, the shear number of battles are staggering. Frankly, I’ve found it difficult to keep up. Then I took notice of an issue that brought me to a halt. Ironically I didn’t have to travel far at all to find it; it was right in my own backyard. I’ve logged over 200,000 thousand adventurous miles throughout this country and it was the fight for the Boundary Waters of Northern Minnesota that stopped me in my tracks. This place is dear to my heart, it was there that I camped for the first time and learned the power of solitude wilderness could provide. Right now a foreign mining company has focused in on the northern Minnesota watershed and this administration has given them the greenlight. If it proceeds, the consequences for the region as a whole could be disastrous. I knew I had to force myself to try and find the other perspective. So I went to Washington to search for it. I sought to listen without bias and an open mind. I did just that. Yet, the more I learned the more troubled I became. I left the capitol with my knowledge solidified and a conclusion of great confidence. If unimpeded, a pristine landscape will be destroyed; a precious natural resource tarnished and generations of livelihoods jeopardized. The precedent created will extend far beyond the borders of the Boundary Waters, giving a terrifying glimpse of what our beloved wild spaces across the country face in the future.  What’s occurring in Northern Minnesota is a level of blatant negligence which till now, I had yet to witness and we need to take notice.

If you’re not familiar with The Boundary Waters, here’s what you need to know. The area entails 1.1 million acres of interconnected waterways located in the northern third of the Superior National forest. It’s nearly 2,000 pristine lakes made it one of the first wilderness areas to be stringently protected under The Wilderness Act and sees around 250,000 visitors a year, making it the most visited wilderness area in the country.  This is water so pure I’m more than comfortable paddling into the lake’s center and guzzling it down. The proposed sulfide-ore copper mining operation wouldn’t just create the risk of all that untainted water being destroyed, it would virtually guarantee it. Even compared to the destructive mining industry as a whole, sulfide-ore copper mining takes the cake when it comes to environmental risks. A 2012 Earthworks study found that of the fourteen sulfide-ore copper mines representing 89% of U.S copper production, 100% of the mines had experienced pipeline spills or other accidental releases. In addition, 92% (13/14) had experienced water collection and treatment failures resulting in significant effects on water quality. That’s a huge problem when your mine is sitting right at the edge of a massive series of interconnected waterways. Figuring out that mining is going to harm the nearby ecosystem though is hardly an epiphany. It takes a few minutes of research to realize a spill can and will happen. The Boundary Waters is hardly the only ecosystem this administration has put in it’s crosshairs. I don’t just worry about the environment though and that’s what makes this issue different. This is equally a fight for the people of northern Minnesota and future generations to come.

When I’m on the road, our stays are quick and the amount of time required to fully investigate the issues is often hard to come by. So I’ve learned to defer to the experts. A practice this administration seems determined to forgo. Environmental issues seem to boil down to nature’s preservation vs. economic growth. That shouldn’t be overlooked. In that growth can be the requirement of fathers and mothers working in order to provide for their families. I understand and I care deeply about that. So that’s where I looked first. What’s at stake for the communities that call this place home? A 2018 independent study by prominent Harvard economists stated that leaving the Boundary Waters economy untouched would result in continued growth, greater long-term gain for the region both in employment and income compared to if mining were to take place. If you’re into numbers, we’re talking 1,500-4,600 more jobs and anywhere from 100 million to 900 million more in income. This study, like numerous others conducted, is incredibly thorough but it’s conclusion is simple and understandable. Mining creates a boom and bust economy. The mining will boom and jobs will be created. The mine will eventually die and not only will those jobs go with it leaving the local economy worse off than before. In the Boundary Waters these consequences will be amplified. When you’re home to the most visited wilderness area in the country, you’re also home to a growing eco-tourism industry. Once that water is tainted, so is the tourism industry. I drove through Moab, Utah recently and saw it as a fitting example. Moab today is known to many as the outdoor recreational capital of the world. However, in the 1950’s it was known as the “Uranium Capital of the World.” The mines of Moab boomed and then, yep, they busted. That’s when tourism began to take off along with the economy. Moab though is dry and unfortunately that scenario is impossible in the Boundary Waters. Once the mine is activated, the pristine waters that generate the ecotourism economy will be tainted and when dealing with water, there’s no way to bury the evidence. That’s all coming from the experts, but I have a pair of eyes too.

The majority of those 200,000 miles I’ve logged have taken me through small towns and rural America. I’ve absorbed the scenes along the way and noticed common threads as I’ve rolled along. I’ve driven through so many mining towns I’ve lost count. I can count on one hand how many of those towns appear to still be active and of those, never once have I seen signs of enduring prosperity.

It’s a fact that living in rural America is becoming increasingly challenging. Jobs are increasingly moving to urban areas and have been for some time.  There’s no way around it. I understand how that can make the prospect of bringing in a mining operation even more appealing. But I view this as a classic case of:  would you rather have someone catch your fish for a month or learn to fish and feed yourself for a lifetime? The quid pro quo with the first option, after they catch your fish, they’ll destroy the water and even if you wanted you’re not becoming an angler anytime soon. It’s easy to study an issue such as this and feel as if maybe they know something you don’t. Let me tell you, each and every interaction I experienced in Washington, put that notion to bed. The government is gambling. They’re going all in on a foreign mining company and using the future of the next generations as collateral.

The group I accompanied to the capitol is named “Kid’s for the Boundary Waters” and boy are they inspiring. Forty teenagers from across the country and even one young man from Peru. He, too, didn’t need more than the eye test to understand the harm potentially taking place in the Boundary Waters. His native town sat on the outskirts of one of Peru’s incredible national parks. As he grew up he watched mining take over his community. His friends and neighbors became sick; the landscape he loved was reduced to smoke and soot. His story was one of many I found tugged on my heart strings. Every teenager had a testimony showing how deeply they cared for the wilderness and how impactful it had been on their life. One girl lost her mother and uncle in a plane crash on their way to Canada. Miraculously she and her sister survived, but she sustained severe burns that covered her body. Her recovery took months. In the midst of her grief she found peace and strength by attending a camp near the outskirts on the Boundary Waters.  Her strength and the strength of the others who shared their stories, left me in awe. It was beyond powerful. As I listened and watched the conversation unfold, I felt this startling sense of backwards irony come over me. I listened to a group of teenagers argue for foresight and request that fact and science preside over any decisions made. Meanwhile a distinguished group of men and women in positions of power attempted to justify the route of instant gratification and worry about the consequences later. Please inform me on scenarios where that has panned out.

After hearing her testimony and a dozen more, one senior official said, “Thank you for sharing. We brought a bunch of cookies for you.” Those were the words of David Bernhardt, a former big oil lobbyist who after looming ethics violations kicked out his predecessor, heads into the new year as the Acting Secretary of the Interior. I was shocked, yet sadly, not surprised.  A common thread had been established. Those pushing the mining proposition have made it clear. Foresight has no place in their motives. If future generations suffer the consequences of their actions, they won’t be around to care. There’s another facet to this when it comes to impacting future generations and this one extends far beyond the borders of the Boundary Waters. The Boundary Waters holds around 22% of the freshwater found in our entire national forest system. We’re not short on copper and it can be found elsewhere. As much as this administration attempts to deny climate change, it’s impacts are impossible to overlook. Every day we need water and our worlds once abundant supply is dwindling.

Maybe this is a generational gap, I’m really not sure, but dealing with our countries water supply are issues my generation is beginning to be faced with. As I write this I’m driving through the heart of central California, an area responsible for a large portion of the agriculture consumed in our country. Everywhere I look I see posters placed by farmers, pleading for water.  Their problem is our problem.  If I had a red flag I’d wave it till my arms tired: a huge slice of our most precious natural resource is being rendered unusable! That knowledge alone should produce enough rational to halt the mining operation.  I’m writing this because it hasn’t. At this point, you may be wondering how could the federal government move forward? They’re more than aware of everything I’ve stated and due to how ludicrous the notion of mining near this watershed has be proven to be, they’ve been left with essentially one option. If they want to get away with it, they’ll have to do it in broad daylight and they’ll have to negligently suppress science and reason in the process. That’s exactly what they’re doing.

These mining risks have been known for quite some time and the alarm bells have rung for years. In fact, in 2016 the National Forest Service conducted a study to determine the environmental risks mining posed to the area. They concluded that mining would be downright unacceptable and cited the irreparable harm it would cause to the wilderness. In addition, there was a comment period designed for the public to weigh in.  Over 181,000 citizens voiced their opinions. 98% voiced opposition to the prospect of mining. Science and the people had spoken. To further ensure the protection of the Boundary Waters and its natural resources, an additional step had to take place. A two-year environmental assessment study would determine appropriate measures to protect the wilderness, potentially placing a twenty-year ban on mining in the area. The situation was decently transparent. The first study showed no mining can safely take place; the second would state for how long. It appeared simple.  However, those such as Minnesota Congresswoman Betty McCollum were still not satisfied. She, like many others, sought confirmation that the forest service and department of agriculture would simply keep their word and not interfere with the environmental assessment. In a meeting with Agriculture Secretary Perdue, McCollum received confirmation in a very candid way. Perdue stated, “ I’m not smart enough to know to do without the facts base and the sound science and we are absolutely allowing that to proceed.” But then things took an abrupt and troubling turn.

Fifteen months into the twenty-four-month study Perdue abruptly cancelled the research and simultaneously opened the area up to mining, citing no new scientific information was revealed. Two major flaws with that statement, you’re trying to tell me you studied this for over a year and found nothing new whatsoever? I find it hard to believe a 15-month investigation found nothing new.  Highly doubtful. Okay then, let’s say you’re being truthful. If no new science was revealed then the information received from the 2016 study would be the science you would use to make your decision, which based on that studies conclusion, no mining would take place right? Crickets. If you feel this is a tad difficult to understand, you’re correct. It makes no sense. The next natural reaction was, we’re going to need to see these studies. No can do, they’re being withheld from the public. Reading between the lines, it’s easy to determine this study produced enough damming scientific evidence that if revealed, would make mining near the boundary waters impossible. So they shut it down, shut out the public then took science along with fact and buried it without explanation. Meanwhile as everyone scrambles to figure out what happened, a Chilean mining company is closer and closer to setting up shop.

I left Washington with the images of those kids circulating through my mind; their words played in my ears on repeat. I speak for a living and yet had absolutely no idea what to say to them. They had just learned a frightening reality: that evidence and fact don’t serve a place in decision making and will always take a back seat to greed. That even when others throughout history have deemed something untouchable, their water and wilderness will always have a price tag. Worst of all they learned in Washington, the word of men and women in power is seemingly worthless. We can’t live with that. I don’t know the motivation behind this administration’s actions. Whatever their agenda is, I know that in every way their statements are flawed.  I don’t worry about check marks on a ballot. I worry about our future; our water and the longevity of the communities who call northern Minnesota home. The Boundary Waters have been untouched for millions of years.  Generations have relied on their pristine waters for rejuvenation and livelihood. A stroke of the pen and it all may be lost forever.

So my parting question is this: if we allow harm and destruction to fall on the places history has deemed untouchable, where do we draw the line? Or is it that we’ve finally arrived at the point where that line itself no longer exists. Though in the shadows of our Yellowstone’s and Yosemite’s, this northern Minnesota watershed appears miniscule, but it’s outcome will create ripples that extend beyond its borders. If mining proceeds near the Boundary Waters there will be a dire message sent to the rest of the country and the natural places we hold dear attached to it. That no matter how irreplaceable something may be, no matter how damming the scientific evidence or drastic the consequences, there’s nothing that greed cannot overcome.  

On and off camera Colton has been an advocate for the preservation and conservation of our public lands. In 2017 he was awarded the National Parks Conservation Associations Robin W. Winks Award for enhancing public understanding of the national park system. Colton was raised in the town of Delano, Minnesota.