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Science Desk: Big News! But What Does It Mean for the BWCA?

Friday, January 20, 2017
Posted by
Matt Norton

Several amazing announcements at the end of last year and the beginning of this year mean big news for the Boundary Waters – specifically, Twin Metals’ request to renew its mineral leases was denied, and a watershed-wide environmental review was initiated. We're proud of our efforts and the great strides we’ve taken to protect the Boundary Waters Wilderness, and we know we couldn't have done it without you or our Campaign partners. You need to know, however, that even though one mining company lost its leases, the fight to protect the Boundary Waters is not over.

More work is ahead for us and for you. There will be critical moments when we will need you to comment on behalf of the Boundary Waters. It is very important that you take action at each opportunity. Right now is one of those times -- comment here!

First, let's back up and break down what happened in December 2016 and the beginning of this year.

What Just Happened?

What Does It Mean?
In a nutshell, it means that the Campaign has met our short-term goal and is on track to, but has not yet, achieved our medium-term and long-term goals for protecting the Boundary Waters. Let’s review the Campaign’s short, medium, and long-term goals for protection for the Boundary Waters and its watershed from sulfide-ore copper mining.

  • Short Term: Our short-term goal required that Chilean copper mining giant, Antofagasta, and its wholly-owned subsidiary, Twin Metals, be denied the renewal they requested of their expired mineral leases, which are the only federal minerals leases in the watershed of the Boundary Waters. The announcements in December mean that we have accomplished this short-term goal, though the mining companies are challenging the federal agencies’ denial of the lease renewal request. The case is in federal court, and will play out over the next year or two.
  • Medium Term: The Campaign’s medium-term goal is a 20-year administrative “withdrawal,” during which no new leases or exploration of federal minerals would occur within the Boundary Waters watershed. The process to create a 20-year withdrawal starts with a two-year pause on new federal mineral activity in the area proposed to be withdrawn, so that federal agencies can do an environmental review of the effects the proposed withdrawal would have on the environment, people, and economy. The announcements from earlier this month have triggered a two-year pause and environmental review, and started the process that should lead to our medium-term goal of a 20-year withdrawal of federal minerals in the watershed of the Boundary Waters.
  • Long Term: After the environmental review is done, it will be up to the new Secretary of the Interior Department to decide whether to announce a 20-year withdrawal for the Boundary Waters watershed. If that happens, then we’ll use those years to build support for the Campaign’s ultimate goal: passage by Congress of an act granting permanent withdrawal of federal minerals within the watershed of the Boundary Waters.

To get the best environmental review possible, your comments on this environmental review are needed now! Your engagement in the environmental review process, and your continued support for the Campaign, are critical. The environmental review process has started with a 90-day public comment period. As someone who loves the Boundary Waters, your comment should be sent in as soon as possible, and definitely before April 19. You should also consider attending and speaking up at an agency-hosted public meeting.

So yes, we’ve seen some great forward steps taken in the last several weeks, but we’re not there yet. Luckily, we have a plan for how to get from here to our long-term goal: permanent protection for the Boundary Waters and its watershed ...  And luckily, we have you. Our citizen members, volunteers, and partner organizations are essential. We have only gotten to this stage, and we will only achieve the greater victory of permanent protection, with your continued involvement and support. So please sign and share the petition to keep this momentum moving forward. Thank you!


Matt Norton is the Campaign's policy director. He previously worked as campaign director with Minnesota Environmental Partnership, and as forestry and wildlife advocate and staff attorney for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.

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The Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters has reached a critical turning point.  The Departments of Agriculture (via the U.S. Forest Service (USFS)) and Interior (via its Bureau of Land Management (BLM)) are asking for public input as they consider whether or not to consent to the renewal of two expired mining leases. Unless both agencies give their consent, the expired leases are void. Without leases, the extractive hopes of Chilean copper mining giant, Antofagasta, and its Minnesota subsidiary, Twin Metals, for a sulfide-ore copper mine located next to (and in the watershed of) the BWCA, will come crashing down.

This is where you come in. As a lover of the Boundary Waters, Quetico Provincial Park, and Voyageurs National Park you should now, please, urge the USFS and BLM to withhold their consent and also to withdraw all the federal mineral rights within the watershed of the BWCA from the federal minerals leasing program.

Here is the full story:

On June 1, 1966, the BLM granted two identical leases to International Nickel Company (INCO), leases which are located within miles of what is now the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.  Each lease had an original term of 20 years, with the possibility of three renewals for ten years each. Combined, the two leases cover roughly 5,000 acres of the Superior National Forest and, more importantly, the federal minerals underneath. The leased acres are located immediately to the east of the Kawishiwi River and Birch lake, and to the west of and beneath Birch lake.  Both lake and river flow directly into and through the heart of the BWCAW reaching the Quetico Provincial Park and Voyageurs National Park. The leases were renewed twice, first on July 1, 1989, and again on January 1, 2004.  At no time did INCO or Twin Metals ever begin to produce (i.e., to actually mine) during the primary (20-year) term of the leases, or during either of the two ten-year renewals.

That the BLM ever issued the original leases seems amazing today, but consider for a moment that the leases are quite old, as far as leases go.  The leases have never undergone environmental review, as they were issued on June 1, 1966, well before the passage of modern American environmental laws.  Specifically, the leases predate the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA - the USA’s environmental review law, signed by Pres. Richard Nixon January 1, 1970); the Federal Clean Air Act (1970); the Federal Clean Water Act (1972); and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act (1978). The leases also predate:

  • Ronald Reagan winning his first election to Governor of California (November. 8, 1966)
  • The Viet Cong launching the Viet Nam War’s Tet Offensive (January 30, 1968)
  • Richard Nixon being elected President (November 5, 1968)
  • The Moon Landing (Apollo 11 took off for the moon on July 16, 1969)

In October, 2012, Twin Metals applied for a third 10-year renewal, claiming an automatic right to the third renewal. The BLM, in the course of considering Twin Metals’ application, asked the Office of the Solicitor (the Interior Department’s top lawyer) whether a third lease renewal was required as Twin Metals claimed, or instead up to the discretion of the federal agencies. On March 8th, 2016, the Solicitor issued its determination in a substantial document called an M-opinion, which includes a summation of the facts and the legal analysis that supports and explains the government’s decision.

The Solicitor’s M-opinion concludes that mining company Twin Metals Minnesota has no legal right to a third renewal of the expired mineral leases.  Rather, whether to renew the expired leases is a decision within the discretion of Secretary of the Interior, and the USFS as surface land manager.

The M-opinion explains, painstakingly, that under the terms of the original leases the lessee (now Twin Metals) is entitled to three successive 10-year renewals of the leases unless at the end of the original 20-year lease the lessee has not begun production (i.e., mining). The leases allow the Secretary of Interior to grant an extension of time for the commencement of production, but the lessee is not entitled to any subsequent lease renewals unless production begins during the extended time.

Production has never begun – not during the 20-year primary term, nor during the first lease renewal term. In addition, the Secretary of Interior did not grant an extension of time for beyond the primary lease term for commencement of production. As a result, Twin Metals has no legal right to an automatic third renewal of the expired leases.

That leaves the decision of whether to renew the expired leases in the hands of the BLM and USFS.  The BLM has asked the USFS whether it will consent or not to consent to renewal of the leases. The USFS has a right to withhold its consent and if the agency does, then the leases are as good as terminated.

Before making a determination on the question, the USFS set out a 30-day public input period, and first one then another public listening session. The first of which was held in Duluth on July 13 (pictured above, watch the livestream here) and the second of which is scheduled for this coming Tuesday, July 19, in Ely. 

Please provide your input by signing the petition and, if you possibly can, by attending the listening session. For more information on how to attend the Ely listening session, click here


Matt Norton is the Campaign's policy director. He previously worked as campaign director with Minnesota Environmental Partnership, and as forestry and wildlife advocate and staff attorney for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. 

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Science Desk: Waves of Warblers Flood the Northwoods

Friday, June 3, 2016
Posted by
Ellen Hawkins

Recently, we shared a Science Desk blog about landscape ecology, which considers broad patterns of ecological relationships and processes that can never be corralled by boundaries on a map. Its principles support the eagle-eyed perspective we need to protect the Boundary Waters. Water flowing into the Boundary Waters has a huge influence on wilderness water quality and everything that depends on it, so we think in terms of entire watersheds when we consider proposals to undertake sulfide-ore copper mining here.

Thanks to science reports we've commissioned and reports in the media, we know a lot about the flow of ground and surface waters within the Rainy River watershed. We can clearly see how contaminants could be transported from mining locations into the wilderness and beyond by Spruce and Stoney Creeks and associated flowages, the Kawishiwi and Rainy Rivers, and points west and north.

What happens within our airsheds also demands the broad perspectives of landscape ecologists and wilderness advocates. Vast rivers of birds flow across oceans and continents, following flyways that connect wintering grounds with distant breeding habitat – which for many is the Boundary Waters and surrounding wildlands. The air currents that carry these great migrations would be polluted by sulfide-ore copper mining as surely as the rivers beneath.

Sometimes we get an inkling of that airy river when we hear the soft twittering of birds flying in starlight all through the night. Radar that can track migrating birds and reveal the magnitude of the great migrations has helped create the concept of flyways as rivers. That metaphor was embedded in my mind by an encounter with warblers on a cool and misty day in mid May several years ago.

I was planting trees on a campsite on Alton Lake. Across the lake, the treetops, just beginning to leaf out, were vibrant green pillows scattered across the pale landscape. A few yellow-rumped warblers preyed on a hatch of soft little flies.

By late morning the just-hatched insects covered every rock, tree, and shrub near the lake, and suddenly I realized there were warblers everywhere. Along the shore from the south came dozens, then hundreds, all on the prowl, plucking flies from every surface.  There were gorgeous redstarts, strikingly handsome black-throated greens, bay-breasteds resplendent with velvety brown heads and rich chestnut throats. Rusty-cheeked Cape Mays searched a young fir beside me while palms worked the ground practically at my feet.  By noon I’d seen more than half of the 24 species of wood warbler that nest in the BWCAW, and they were there by the thousands.

They piled up against the shore where a bay blocked their flow, until the point was alive with beautiful warblers from forest floor to canopy. Then they surged out across the bay and flew northward, pushed on by warblers pouring in from the south.

I later found that friends at Tettagouche State Park and in Grand Marais, and my husband on Knife Lake were witness that day to the same spectacle, so the crest of this wave of warblers must have been at least 40 miles wide.

Bud Heinselman, in his classic book The Boundary Waters Ecosystem, reports astonishing numbers of warblers in the Boundary Waters and surrounding wildlands. His estimates, based on studies done in the 1970s–80s, range from 1,300–2,200 pairs per square mile - which adds up to some 5 million adults and young wilderness-hatched warblers at the start of the fall migration.

Every one of these warblers preys on insects. One pair can pick off all the caterpillars from a million leaves in the 10 days it takes them to fledge their young. Even though each warbler is tiny (most weigh well under an ounce) together they provide invaluable free (and pesticide-free) insect control services throughout their nesting habitat and on down the flyway. We know about many of the hugely beneficial ways warblers interact with their environment.  For example, Tennessee, Cape May, bay-breasted, and blackburnian warblers play a big role in regulating frequency and severity of spruce budworm epidemics. Many others, no doubt, are yet to be discovered.

Chel Anderson and Heidi Fischer discuss the bird-forest relationship that is so crucial to forest health in their book North Shore: A Natural History of Minnesota’s Superior Coast.  Summed up, our forests must have birds, including the all-important warblers, to maintain health and vigor; and for warblers, forests with a diversity of communities of different species and of various ages, including especially mature coniferous forests in unbroken tracts, are absolutely essential. When this relationship fails, results are dire.

These wonderful warblers are in danger from Twin Metals and the other proposed mines. An obvious peril would be the displacement of thousands of birds by the mining operations’ footprints. Nesting habitat lost to new roads, buildings, parking lots, and waste disposal sites could not be replaced, and each year would mean the loss of what should have been that generation’s offspring. 

The operations’ footprints would be irregularly shaped, meaning that new forest fragmentation would be maximized. A study of global changes in forest cover from 2000 to 2012 reveals that we’re losing forest interior three times as fast as loss of overall forest.  While there was a net loss of forest cover about 2 ½ times the size of Texas during that period, it’s the fragmentation that’s the bigger worry. The authors conclude, “Forest area loss alone from 2000 to 2012 underestimates ecological risks from forest fragmentation. In addition to the direct loss of forest, there was a widespread shift of the remaining global forest to a more fragmented condition.” This is bad because some organisms, including some songbirds, must have large stretches of unbroken forest. 

Also, interior (unfragmented) forest can better withstand impacts from things like invasive species and various kinds of pollution. At the edges of forests, and in small fragments of forest – exactly what the mining operation has produced, with its hundreds of test drill sites with access roads widely scattered throughout the forest, and which would continue to be produced should operations proceed - things like variation in soil moisture, nighttime lights and noise, and traffic have a much bigger impact.

Along the edges of the mining operations, 24/7 noise and light pollution would be more than a nuisance to wildlife of many kinds. For example, even seemingly innocuous lights like porch lights and street lamps have been shown to have negative impacts on migrating and nesting songbirds. The dead zone as far as successful nesting for warblers might extend far beyond the actual footprint of mining operations.

The air the birds travel and breath would be contaminated with dust which could carry, to name some of the toxic ingredients, mercury, sulfur, copper, nickel, cobalt, arsenic, lead, and cadmium, as well as asbestos-like fibers and non-toxic, but still unhealthy, particulates. This scary mix wouldn’t just hover above the mine sites. It would become part of the currents of air that stream up toward Ely some days and out across the wilderness and on to the North Shore on others, to be breathed into lungs, scattered across leaves, lakes, soil, caterpillars, canoeists, warbler nests, and your garden and mine. 

The University of Minnesota’s Center for Forest Ecology Director Lee Frelich discusses potential impacts likely to affect the Boundary Waters in his report Forest and Terrestrial Impacts of Mining. According to Dr. Frelich, windblown metallic dust can remain a problem for several decades after mining ceases on copper-nickel mine tailings. Once in the soil, the heavy metals can be taken up by plants and can be further distributed by forest fires. It can contribute to acidification that may lead to mineral deficiencies and slow plant growth. Essential mycorrhizal relationships may be disrupted.  Cumulatively, the overall resiliency of the forest may be diminished.

Two kinds of rivers, aerial and aquatic, intersected this morning in the form of a yellow- rumped warbler bugging above the Temperance River, not far from where it flows out of the Boundary Waters.  He flew in on last night’s front, and now he’s hunting from the top of a young cedar. From his perspective and ours each insect is backlit by golden sunlight. He eyes his prey, darts out and does some fancy maneuvering, makes the catch and flits back to his perch. He throws back his head and sings.

This bird has traveled to habitat that’s uniquely perfect for his springtime needs.  No other place in his entire range has habitat this intact, air and water this free of pollution, insects this abundant. I really wish I could tell him that his kind will always be able to come here and find clean air to fly through and clean water to hunt over.

We’re still in the early days of spring with not much happening in the woods, color-wise, so the bright yellow splashes on his rump and sides are eye-catching in a way you could say are out of proportion to their tiny size.

You might say, too, that our delight in watching one little bird is a little over the top, but I don’t think so – it feels just right, in this beautiful place, to pause and admire a perfect little predator just returned to the northwoods after an epic journey. 


Ellen Hawkins lives near the edge of the Boundary Waters, off the Sawbill Trail. Retired from the Forest Service, she finds that surprise encounters with wildlife of all kinds are still among her most delightful experiences, just as they were during her years as a Wilderness ranger.


Citations 

Anderson, Chel; Fischer, Adelheid.  2015. North Shore: A Natural History of Minnesota’s Superior Coast. The University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Frelich, Lee. 2014.  Forest and terrestrial ecosystem impacts of mining. 

Heinselman, Miron. 1996. The Boundary Waters Wilderness Ecosystem.  The University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Riitters, Kurt; Wickham, James; Costanza, Jennifer K.; Vogt, Peter. 2015. A global evaluation of forest interior area dynamics using tree cover data from 2000 to 2012.

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Science Desk: Protecting Clean Water

Friday, May 20, 2016
Posted by
Rachel Garwin

We can’t take our swimmable and fishable waters for granted, even in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. The more time that has passed since the passage of the landmark Clean Water Act in 1972, fewer people remember that our public waters used to be at the complete mercy of polluters. As memories of burning rivers and bloated fish fade from public consciousness, it becomes even more important to understand the value of Minnesota’s remaining clean water. 

What is now known as the Clean Water Act was actually a set of amendments made to the 1948 Federal Water Pollution Control Act, spurred by increasingly visible environmental disasters. Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River catching fire (1969 marked the thirteenth time, by one account) was perhaps the most spectacular of these, but Minnesota had its own problems with water impairment. Discharges of harmful materials, like a devastating soybean oil spill on the Blue Earth River near Mankato in 1963, were neither required to be reported nor cleaned up. Pipes emptied directly into our public waters, like the culvert releasing an “acrid smelling liquid” into the Mississippi River in Minneapolis in 1973, as depicted in this photo from the National Archives.

The Clean Water Act made it illegal for individuals and companies to directly discharge pollution into navigable waters without a permit, which in turn gave the EPA the authority to regulate pollutants being released into our public waters. The Clean Water Act allowed the EPA  and partnering states to set water quality targets for waters, as well, and to use the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits to limit, but not eliminate, the discharge of pollutants by discrete sources. By controlling the flagrant dumping of toxic, flammable, and destructive materials into rivers and lakes, the Clean Water Act has achieved remarkable success in improving the overall quality of many of our waters to be fishable and swimmable, a major goal of the Act. 

Despite these historic achievements, our clean water is leaking through our hands. In April 2015, the Star Tribune reported that “half the lakes and rivers in southern Minnesota are too polluted much of the time for safe swimming and fishing,” results from a survey by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA). The MPCA’s work to update and reauthorize taconite mining NPDES permits under the Clean Water Act have stalled, and the commissioner admitted that the work is paused, despite an active investigation by the EPA as to whether the MPCA is sufficiently upholding the Clean Water Act. The Izaak Walton League of America reported results from a nation-wide survey that Minnesota’s waters are plagued with mercury, nutrients and sediment, bacteria, PCBs (a possible carcinogen), and salts that are detrimental to the aquatic environment. The Minnesota Department of Health has raised alarms about elevated nitrate levels (found in fertilizers, animal waste, and human waste) found in rural groundwater systems, since it can infiltrate drinking water wells and cause “blue baby syndrome,” a serious condition for infants under the age of six months. If we continue taking our remaining swimmable, fishable, and drinkable water for granted, we might not have much left.

One important step to protecting our clean water is to understand where the high quality waters remain and where waters have been degraded, and how. The Izaak Walton League’s report calls for increased frequency of testing water quality as an important step. Because state budgets can be tight, citizen involvement such as with the MPCA’s Citizen Lake Monitoring Program can help expand the reach of the water quality monitoring program. Explorers Amy and Dave Freeman are participating in this program and collecting additional water quality data as part of their Year in the Wilderness expedition in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

The next step must be to protect sensitive watersheds that contain increasingly rare pristine water. The waters of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness are so clean that they are swimmable, fishable, and even (at your own risk) drinkable. In fact, the State of Minnesota rates the waters of the Boundary Waters as “outstanding resource value water” for their “high water quality, wilderness characteristics, unique scientific or ecological significance, exceptional recreational value, or other special qualities which warrant stringent protection from pollution.” As part of the administrative rules that govern the State of Minnesota, these waters may not be degraded by either new or expanded sources of pollution. Such concern for the Boundary Waters Wilderness is highly warranted, especially since half of the state’s waters have been found to be unsuitable for swimming and fishing.

We have the responsibility to ensure that the Boundary Waters Wilderness retains its clean water for this and future generations. We must prevent new sources of toxic pollutants, like from sulfide-ore mining, to be placed in its watershed.

 


Rachel Garwin is the Campaign's policy director. She holds an M.S. in Natural Resources from the University of Vermont. Every month, Science Desk will include our latest scientific support and share a deeper understanding of the potential environmental impact from sulfide-ore copper mining near the Boundary Waters.

On Tuesday, April 19, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell made a bold statement. Her speech laid out a vision for the next 100 years of American conservation policy, one that includes modern science and larger scale thinking to help solve our most complex conservation challenges. One line stood out: “What we need is smart planning, on a landscape-level, irrespective of manmade lines on a map.” Secretary Jewell continued to describe what landscape-level planning looks like, and she included Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness as a prime example of a special place “where science is helping us better understand the value of the land and water and potential impacts of development.” But what does landscape-level planning mean for the Boundary Waters Wilderness?

Landscape-level planning draws on a scientific discipline called landscape ecology. Though Secretary Jewell’s announcement makes it sound like cutting edge science, landscape ecology has a long pedigree and has been a useful tool for conservation scientists and land managers since the 1980s. Now that it is has infiltrated to the highest levels of the public land management agencies, landscape ecology can be used more pervasively to better deal with the large scale conservation problems we face today.

Landscape ecology cuts to the heart of what is difficult about studying the natural environment: spatial scale. Natural scientists must set boundaries on their studies to avoid the overwhelming complexity that is the natural world. Instead of considering all predator-prey interactions in the Superior National Forest, for instance, a Canada lynx biologist might only consider the interaction between lynx and snowshoe hares in a region inhabited by a particular group of lynx. Similarly, an ecologist looking into the history of species composition of the Boundary Waters Wilderness forest must first determine the spatial extent of her study so she does not end up investigating all of Minnesota. The discipline of landscape ecology gives ecologists tools to discuss the impact of spatial scale on the natural patterns and processes that affect the pieces of the environment--from underlying rocks to individual organisms to population size of threatened species.

Landscape ecology also provides an crucial framework and common language to understand the interconnection of different types of land. As Secretary Jewell noted in her speech, today’s United States is a patchwork (ecologists might call it a “mosaic”) of urban, suburban, agricultural, industrial, and more natural lands. Even those more natural lands fall along a spectrum of “wildness” -- from city parks planted with shade trees to the remotest parts of federally designated Wilderness Areas. Landscape ecologists seek to incorporate the whole landscape--patchiness and all--in their efforts to understand the natural and human-caused dynamics that affect places such as the Boundary Waters Wilderness.

Armed with the landscape perspective, an ecologist is no longer limited to focus solely within a Wilderness Area’s boundaries to understand how it functions. Instead, she can think about how large-scale patterns of land use, development, atmospheric pollution, climate change, human visitorship, shifts in vegetation species composition, or wildlife migrations can play dramatic roles in affecting a protected place. In other words, landscape ecology properly acknowledges that no place is an island -- even literal islands.

This why landscape-level planning is crucially important for both the future of American conservation policy and for the Boundary Waters Wilderness. Scientists know so much more in 2016 about watersheds and the interconnectivity of a landscape than they did in 1966 when the Bureau of Land Management first issued mineral leases in the watershed of the Boundary Waters Wilderness. The Boundary Waters Wilderness does not exist in isolation from its surrounding environment. From fluxes of wolves and moose and Canada lynx moving across the Wilderness boundary to water that pours into the Wilderness area from outside of it, the Boundary Waters Wilderness depends on its larger landscape. In order to make the best possible decision, responsible action by the land management agencies requires the consideration of the impacts of proposed sulfide-ore mining at a watershed scale.

That’s why we are working for permanent protection for the Boundary Waters by protecting its watershed. And we need your help to make it happen.

Please tell Minnesota’s Senators Franken and Klobuchar and Representative Nolan that you agree with Secretary Jewell that Boundary Waters Wilderness deserves the best, modern science to be used in decision-making at a landscape scale by taking action here.

For further reading, here are some foundational pieces on landscape ecology (plus one specific to the Boundary Waters Wilderness):

Baker, W.L. 1989. Landscape ecology and nature reserve design in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, Minnesota. Ecology: 70(1): 23-35.

Forman, R.T. 1995. Some general principles of landscape and regional ecology. Landscape Ecology 10: 133-142.

Turner, M.G., R.H. Gardner, and R.V. O’Neill. 1995. Ecological dynamics at broad scales. BioScience 45: S29-S35.

Turner, M.G. 1989. Landscape ecology: The effect of pattern on process. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 20: 171-197.

 


Rachel Garwin is the Campaign's policy director. She holds an M.S. in Natural Resources from the University of Vermont. Every month, Science Desk will include our latest scientific support and share a deeper understanding of the potential environmental impact from sulfide-ore copper mining near the Boundary Waters.

Science Desk: Success Stories: Protecting Special Places

Friday, March 25, 2016
Posted by
Rachel Garwin

As Governor Mark Dayton and former Vice President Walter Mondale have both stated in recent weeks, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is a national treasure. It belongs not only to every Minnesotan, but to Americans across the country. We sometimes forget that we are co-owners of America’s public lands, including 1.1 million acres of interconnected lakes, streams, and woods in our own backyards: the Boundary Waters Wilderness.

As the threat of sulfide-ore mining in the Boundary Waters Wilderness watershed looms large, it is helpful to remember that other national treasures around the country have successfully been protected from similar mining proposals. When we, the people, weighed in on how we want our public lands managed across the country, we have successfully protected icons such as Yellowstone National Park, the Grand Canyon and Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front. We are trying to do the same thing for the Boundary Waters Wilderness, so it can be instructive to look at how similar icons around the country were saved.

Saving Yellowstone National Park from the New World Mine
In the mid-1990s, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC)--a coalition of recreation, tourism, business, and environmental groups based in Bozeman, Montana--successfully stopped a proposed sulfide-ore mine from being built on the edge of Yellowstone National Park. A Canadian company, Crown Butte Mines, wanted to build a massive open pit gold mine only a few miles from the park’s northeast entrance, and less than a mile from the park boundary. Crown Butte Mines claimed that its tailings sitting along rivers that flowed into Yellowstone would not pollute the park, but they could not prove it.

GYC took two strategic paths toward victory: assembling a group of experts that showed the impossibility of mitigating the impacts from such a mine, due to the likely enormity of the mine, and the nature of the orebody, and the potential for acid mine drainage to develop. Additionally, GYC raised concerns about the fundamental change in landscape character so close to the park boundary that would occur with the development of an industrial mining district.

In addition to raising scientific concerns about the impact of the proposed mine, GYC amassed political support for protecting Yellowstone. Building on the broad coalition of local and regional opposition to the mine, GYC elevated the profile of the issue to the national stage and caught the attention of the Clinton Administration. This advocacy ultimately convinced Crown Butte to retract its proposal, and the federal government compensated Crown Butte for site reclamation and reclamation costs. Check out this 1996 photo of the signing of the deal that saved Yellowstone from the New World Mine.

Protecting Grand Canyon National Park from Uranium Mining
Protecting America’s special places didn’t stop in the 1990s. Thousands of uranium mining claims in the watershed of the Grand Canyon were filed in the late 2000s, prompting a network of conservation groups, Native American tribes, businesses and downstream water consumers to advocate for permanent protection for the Grand Canyon watershed.

Starting in 2008, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Grand Canyon Trust and Sierra Club embarked on an advocacy and legal strategy aimed to protect the health of the waters flowing into the Colorado River and thus the Colorado River itself. They responded to overwhelming public opposition to the proposed uranium prospecting and mining by filing injunctions, sending letters to federal land management agencies, and suing the Department of Interior (DOI) for allowing mineral exploration on public lands in the Grand Canyon watershed in direct opposition to a congressional resolution that prohibited such activities.

At the same time, widespread support for permanently protecting the watershed of the Grand Canyon was mounting. Towns and cities dependent on the Colorado River for drinking water expressed support for a two-year “pause” to study the need for withdrawing public lands in the watershed from the mining laws, which would prevent new mining operations. In 2009, DOI Secretary Ken Salazar announced just such a period -- a two-year moratorium on new claims and exploration on public lands within the Grand Canyon watershed. After a complex and thorough process to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement, invite public comment, and revise the document in response to those comments, in October 2011 the Bureau of Land Management issued a Final Environmental Impact Statement showing the need to protect the Grand Canyon. In January 2012, DOI Secretary Salazar ordered a 20-year withdrawal of public lands in the watershed of the Grand Canyon from the mining laws, creating an effective moratorium against new mining claims and operations that would threaten the Grand Canyon. [For a more detailed timeline of these activities, plus all of the additional actions necessary for the campaign’s success, see this chronicle.]

It’s Time to Save the Boundary Waters
The Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters has learned a lot from these campaigns and others to protect nationally significant natural icons, and we are committed to achieving permanent protection for the Boundary Waters. The Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters is a broad coalition of more than 25 partner organizations, including sportsmen, conservationists, veterans’ groups and more than 100 local and national businesses. Organizations such as the National Wildlife Federation have passed resolutions opposing sulfide mining in the BWCA watershed and 53 leading scientists in ecology and natural resource-based disciplines signed a letter expressing deep concern over the proposed mine sites.

The Campaign also has the support of the Wildlife and Hunting Heritage Conservation Council, an official advisory group established under the Federal Advisory Committee Act to advise the Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Agriculture on recreational hunting and wildlife resource issues.

Our broad-based coalition will continue advocating for permanent protection for Minnesota’s national treasure, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Will you join us?

[TOP AND BOTTOM PHOTOS: Dave Freeman; YELLOWSTONE PHOTO: NPS / Neal Herbert; GRAND CANYON: NPS / Michael Quinn]


Rachel Garwin is the Campaign's policy director. She holds an M.S. in Natural Resources from the University of Vermont. Every month, Science Desk will include our latest scientific support and share a deeper understanding of the potential environmental impact from sulfide-ore copper mining near the Boundary Waters.

Science Desk: Interactive Tour of Wilderness at Risk

Tuesday, March 1, 2016
Posted by
Rachel Garwin

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is a breathtaking wild landscape of lakes, streams and woods that covers 1.1 million acres along the Canadian border. International mining companies have proposed building sulfide-ore copper mines right on the edge of the Wilderness, threatening to contaminate its pristine waters and disrupt its quiet wilderness character.

Through the Science Desk series, we try to describe the importance of the Boundary Waters, its watershed and the different ways sulfide-ore copper mining would fundamentally change the landscape. Instead of a written account this month, we invite you to take a virtual tour and see what’s at stake.

This tour uses the Google Earth platform to guide you through the beautiful Boundary Waters in a geographically grounded context. You can see pictures of the South Kawishiwi River and Birch Lake, as well as check out the locations of the sulfide-ore copper mining facilities proposed by Twin Metals Minnesota. 

Check out this one-minute preview:

View the Google Earth tour here.

Technical Suggestions:

  • The tour works best using Firefox or Safari with the Google Earth Plugin installed.
  • You can still view the tour using Chrome, however it will be in 2D rather than 3D.
  • If you prefer to see the tour in the Google Earth program itself, you can download this KMZ file and open it using Google Earth. 
    • Click “Play Tour” in the My Places window,
    • Use the play/pause button in the bottom left hand corner of the map window to start and stop the tour after reading the information windows and scrolling through pictures.

 

Rachel Garwin is the Campaign's policy director. She holds an M.S. in Natural Resources from the University of Vermont. Every month, Science Desk will include our latest scientific support and share a deeper understanding of the potential environmental impact from sulfide-ore copper mining near the Boundary Waters.

Minnesotans are accustomed to difficult winters, and so are its animals. While a person might don an extra coat or retreat to a heated house, animals rely on adaptations and changes in behavior to survive cold temperatures, deep snows and frozen lakes found in the Northwoods, including the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Though these animals have evolved to survive these harsh conditions, winter is demanding and puts extra stress on wildlife that are constantly trying to survive. Placing massive industrial facilities associated with sulfide-ore copper mining on the edge of the Boundary Waters would heighten the existing stressors and end badly for these year-round residents.

In some ways, animal's winter adaptations parallel humans’ responses to winter. In 2014, Doug Smith of the Star Tribune shared a nice roundup of how animals survive Minnesota’s brutal winters. Whitetail deer, for instance, grow a winter coat with hollow hairs that has more insulating power than their summer coat. Likewise, a person might choose to wear a fleece or down coat that traps more warm air near her body, creating better insulation between her and the cold surroundings. Smith goes on to describe chickadees and other birds pulling a similar move by “puff[ing] out their feathers to increase insulation.” Chickadees can also “pull one foot up into their feathers,” much like a skier pulling cold fingers out of a glove to warm them in his palm.

Unlike humans, many animals, especially birds that don’t migrate, must constantly consume calories to survive winter conditions. Deep snow and ice can make it difficult for birds to forage because their normal foods are covered. Waterfowl can collect around open water, creating a high concentration of prey for predators to attack. Grouse also stick around during the winter, and expose themselves to predator attack while digging through deep snow for food. Rabbits and snowshoe hares must also frequently forage for food, relying on woody plant stems, balsam fir twigs and other hardy vegetation that lasts throughout the winter.

Moose, which are extremely well adapted to winter with their long legs and heavy winter coats, appear to be increasingly stressed during winter for counterintuitive reasons. The decline is likely spurred by a variety of factors acting together, and recent information from the Minnesota moose study suggests that winter warming plays an important role in moose mortality. Moose are prone to heat stress in winter if temperatures rise since they can’t cool down in ponds and their dark fur acts as a heat sink in the midst of a snow-covered landscape. Warmer winters also allow the explosion of winter ticks, which attach to moose in the late fall and terrorize the animals well into the winter. Moose in New Hampshire and Maine scrape themselves raw to rid themselves of the blood-sucking parasites, which exposes them to cold temperatures when they finally come. These stresses reduces the ability of many moose to forage and exposes them to higher levels of predation or other diseases.

We’ve discussed on this blog how sulfide-ore copper mining proposed in the Boundary Waters watershed would affect moose specifically, and the impacts would likely be worse in winter since it is an already stressful time. This is true for other animals, as well. We discussed the interference noise and traffic would cause in birds and other animals’ ability to look for food while also watching for predators when we investigated the above-ground footprint of an underground mine. All day, year-round noise, light and traffic from the proposed mine would keep waterfowl, deer, grouse, snowshoe hare and other hardy winter creatures from hearing predators approaching from the sky or through the woods.

The more time put into listening for and hiding from predators, the less food they can collect. If they prioritize foraging, the animals are more exposed to being eaten. The more time spent foraging, wading through deep snow, or keeping warm in adverse conditions, the more food is necessary. Industrializing the landscape around the Boundary Waters will accentuate these winter tradeoffs, with potentially dire results for animals that have otherwise figured out how to survive in harsh conditions.


Rachel Garwin is the Campaign's policy director. She holds an M.S. in Natural Resources from the University of Vermont. Every month, Science Desk will include our latest scientific support and share a deeper understanding of the potential environmental impact from sulfide-ore copper mining near the Boundary Waters.

Science Desk: Where Do We Stand, and Where Do We Go From Here?

Friday, December 18, 2015
Posted by
Rachel Garwin

2015 has been a big year for the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters. We are grateful to our partners, supporters and canoe country lovers who have worked so hard over the last year towards our goal of permanent protection for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Voyageurs National Park watershed. But where are we now, and where are we going in 2016?

As December draws to a close, we have many reasons to celebrate. Two full years after Twin Metals Minnesota’s federal mineral leases expired, there have been no renewals or issuances of new federal mineral leases within the Boundary Waters and Voyageurs watershed. In March, the Campaign delivered more than 60,000 petitions demanding permanent protection of the watershed to lawmakers and decision makers in Washington, D.C. As a result of these tens of thousands of people speaking up, Rep. Betty McCollum introduced the National Park and Wilderness Waters Protection Forever Act in the U.S. House of Representatives, and it has since gained 30 co-sponsors representing communities from coast to coast. Closer to home, hundreds of volunteers have tabled at local events, educated passerby at the Great Minnesota Get Together, phonebanked, written letters of support and toured officials around Ely and the South Kawishiwi River, where Twin Metals proposes to build its sulfide-ore copper mine.

Strong passion for the Boundary Waters and the surrounding canoe country, plus an underlying understanding of the ecological and economic threats posed by sulfide-ore copper mining, helps explain 2015’s high degree of activism. People from across the country and across the world care about the Boundary Waters, especially since it is so accessible from both technical and distance standpoints. I routinely hear stories from people I meet all across the country how their first meaningful fishing trip, their first extended wilderness trip, or the first time they went camping with their family happened in the Boundary Waters. When they learn that this beloved place is threatened by proposed sulfide-ore copper mines whose pollution would flow downstream into it, it spurs concern and action. To date, more than 100,000 people have taken at least one action demanding permanent protection of this national treasure.

The concern deepens upon reflection on the mechanisms of pollution that would threaten the Boundary Waters. In May, we discussed the longstanding track record of water pollution caused by sulfide-ore copper mines. Routine spills of toxic materials, chemicals and industrial wastewater are common at these types of mines, even in the United States. We watched in horror as the Animas River turned orange [photo: Durango Herald] as it ran through beautiful Durango, Colorado, and shuddered to think what would happen to Birch Lake and the South Kawishiwi River if sulfide-ore copper mining were to be allowed on the edge of the Boundary Waters. Finally, we considered the still great impacts of building an underground mine, including infrastructure footprints, wildlife corridor disruptions, traffic, noise, dust and light. These are only a few of the impacts that the Boundary Waters and the people it supports would experience, of course.

It can be easy to get lost in worrying about the potential impacts, but it is also important to remember why canoe country is such a beloved place. The Boundary Waters is a stunning example of a large, intact ecosystem. It supports charismatic wildlife like bear, wolves and moose, which we discussed in June. The wilderness also supports people, whether they only visit once or have lived alongside the wilderness for years. Generations have visited the Boundary Waters and other wilderness areas in search of healing, self-knowledge, challenge and personal development.

The natural amenities of the wilderness and surrounding Superior National Forest also support hundreds of businesses along its edge, from wilderness outfitters and retailers to manufacturing companies that rely on the high quality of life to attract and retain a skilled workforce. Of course, these lands have sustained people for much longer than the five decades the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness has been designated under the 1964 Wilderness Act. The lands lie within the 1854 Ceded Territory, and as such are supposed to be maintained for hunting, fishing, gathering and other usufructuary rights for members of the Bois Forte, Fond du Lac and Grand Portage Bands, who have relied upon the lands for generations.

We have accomplished much in 2015, and there is still much more work to do in 2016. At some point, the federal agencies will make a decision whether or not to renew Twin Metals’ federal mineral leases. We also hope that the agencies will allow for a broader conversation and decision on whether sulfide-ore copper mining is an appropriate activity adjacent to the nation’s most popular wilderness. Guided by the principles that the Boundary Waters is a special and beloved place, that sulfide-ore copper mining is a toxic and risky industry, and that future generations deserve to inherit a wilderness as healthy and life-giving as it is today, we will push tirelessly for its permanent protection. We hope you join us.


Rachel Garwin is the Campaign's policy director. She holds an M.S. in Natural Resources from the University of Vermont. Every month, Science Desk will include our latest scientific support and share a deeper understanding of the potential environmental impact from sulfide-ore copper mining near the Boundary Waters.

Science Desk: Sampling Water Quality to Protect the Boundary Waters

Monday, November 23, 2015
Posted by
Rachel Garwin

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is Minnesota’s crown jewel, and we cannot risk degrading it. Fortunately, Dave and Amy Freeman are helping characterize the water quality of the Boundary Waters. They are using their A Year in the Wilderness expedition to sample water clarity, dissolved oxygen, and conductivity in as many of the Boundary Waters’ 1,175 lakes as they can reach. I recently had the opportunity to meet up with them as they took samples on Rog Lake, and I came away with an appreciation for how hard (and important!) it is to collect data in such remote places.

 

Sunday’s sunshine and warm temperatures were a shock for mid-November, but we basked in the mild conditions. A sapphire mirror stretched away from the landing when we first dipped our paddles in Seagull Lake. We’d driven to the end of the Gunflint Trail the night before and camped at the Trail’s End Campground, where cold stars transfixed us. We had little sense for the rolling hills, exposed rock outcroppings, and remnants of the Ham Lake Fire that surrounded us until the morning broke clear and bright. After being away from canoe country for a little while, it was a perfect reminder of the breathtaking beauty of water, sky, and rock.

We paddled southwest along Three Mile Island and headed for the 20-rod portage into Rog Lake, where I’d arranged to meet Dave and Amy. A light tailwind ruffled the perfect reflection of bare birch and burnt pines. We fell into a rhythm of swinging paddles, quiet conversation, and darting eyes. A bald eagle perched atop a tall wooden spire caught my eye, and I appreciated for the thousandth time the critical role that environmental regulation played in bringing back America’s iconic bird.

Any student of environmental science will tell you that we can’t protect what we don’t understand. When eagles, osprey, and other birds began disappearing across the country, it took a scientist named Rachel Carson to connect the dots between industrial pesticide use, bioaccumulation of toxins up the food chain, and bird declines. Restrictions on pesticide use, the Endangered Species Act, and a whole host of curbs on industrial destruction of the environment followed in subsequent decades.

But what happens when a threatened landscape such as the Boundary Waters is too remote to be studied extensively, especially with limited time, money, and personnel? Without this complete understanding of the Boundary Waters ecosystem’s value -- especially the value of its clean water -- land management agencies would not be able to make a decision that best protects this incredible place. That’s why Dave and Amy Freeman are working so hard to collect water quality data for lakes that the Forest Service and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) simply do not have the time or resources to sample.

When conditions allow, Dave and Amy paddle to the deepest part of the middle of a lake and prepare their instruments. On Rog Lake, they paddled to a point their maps said was 40 feet deep and clocked the position on their GPS device. Dave held the canoe in position while Amy carefully lowered a Secchi disk to measure the water’s clarity, a metric called “turbidity.” The amount of light that penetrates the water is important to track since it influences how well submerged aquatic plants can grow, as well as reflects the amount of sediment, nutrients, and other pollution present in aquatic environments. After the Secchi disk, which was weighted by rocks, disappeared from view underwater, Amy pulled it back up until she could see it again and marked the depth. It was the 56th lake they’d sampled, and the clearest by far.

After pulling the Secchi disk back to the surface, Amy prepared a more complex instrument with a probe at the end of a 15-meter cable. She lowered the probe meter by meter and recorded the temperature and dissolved oxygen meter at each stop. As most trout anglers know, cold water can hold more dissolved oxygen than warm water. The oxygen content and temperature can vary with depth, however, and these layers change on both daily and seasonal cycles. By collecting data at varying depths over the course of a whole year, including spring thaw and winter freeze-up, Dave and Amy will able to provide the Forest Service and MPCA with lake mixing data they wouldn’t otherwise be able to collect.

Amy finally hit bottom with the probe and pulled it back into the boat, coiling the electrical cord carefully. The final step was to dip a handheld electrical conductivity meter into the surface of the lake. The reading was higher than other lakes they’d sampled, suggesting that there was a higher concentration of total dissolved ions in Rog Lake than in others they’d tested. Electrical conductivity is an important water quality metric, especially when it comes to considering the impacts of sulfide-ore copper mining, because it reflects the amount of metals present in the ecosystem. Increased electrical conductivity in waters downstream of sulfide-ore copper mines would indicate that they were leaching metals into the surrounding waters, with potentially devastating impacts to aquatic life and human health.

While Amy recorded the electrical conductivity data and put their sampling gear away, I couldn’t help but feel immensely grateful to her and Dave for taking the time to systematically sample the water across the Boundary Waters. Its vast remoteness draws hundreds of thousands of people every year, but prevents researchers from comprehensively documenting the Boundary Waters’ outstanding water quality. By filling in these data gaps, Amy and Dave are ensuring that we have the information necessary to protect the Boundary Waters for this and future generations.


Rachel Garwin is the Campaign's policy director. She holds an M.S. in Natural Resources from the University of Vermont. Every month, Science Desk will include our latest scientific support and share a deeper understanding of the potential environmental impact from sulfide-ore copper mining near the Boundary Waters.


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