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Kawishiwi Research Station demolition: The pen and the bulldozer

CHISHOLM, MINN. – Last month a public comment period ended regarding the demolition of the Kawishiwi Research Station, as proposed by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and Northern Research Station (NRS). In the process of destroying the Kawishiwi Research Station buildings and research mission, the USFS/NRS would destroy – in one fell swoop of the pen and one fell scoop of the bulldozer – 100 years of USFS history and heritage. 

One must go back in time to trace the history of the Kawishiwi site, located just off Highway 1 along the Kawishiwi River, approximately 12 miles south of Ely.

In 1891, U.S. forest reserves were established to protect timber and hydrological resources. In 1907, these reserves were changed to the National Forest System; Superior National Forest was designated under President Teddy Roosevelt in 1909.

In 1910, two buildings were in use at the newly established Halfway Ranger Station. The site was about a day’s walk between Ely and the next station, thereby “Halfway,” on what was then the Stony Tote Road (which became Highway 1 in 1921). The site also had access to the Kawishiwi River canoe route.

Eligible for historic registry listing
In the 1930s, members of Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) erected seven more buildings on the site, offering rooming facilities and office space for forest research. These buildings are currently eligible for listing with the National Registry of Historic Places, designated as the Halfway Ranger Station Historic District.

In 1950, the Halfway Ranger district offices were moved to Ely. The Kawishiwi site remained as a base for forest research. In 1955, a 1,600-acre experimental forest was established with research conducted out of the buildings. Between 1948 and 1974, Miron “Bud” Heinselman mapped the history of the severity and density of wildfires in northeast Minnesota. His definitive book, “The Boundary Waters Wilderness Ecosystem,” was published in 1996.

The main ranger cabin at the Kawishiwi Halfway Ranger Station.
The main ranger cabin at the Kawishiwi Halfway Ranger Station.

Mammalian studies began at the station in 1968. Sigurd Olson’s field work resulted in the first published scientific study of wolves. Other studies included Lynn Rogers’ early work with bears, UMN research on moose, deer, black bear, and ravens, and Department of the Interior (DOI) research on the American marten and the Canadian lynx. DOI (US Geological Survey) research continues to the present on wolves and white tailed deer.

The most highly publicized and widespread mammalian work to come out of the Kawishiwi Research Station (K Lab) is that of David Mech. His work represents the longest standing wolf research in North America, with studies distributed worldwide. Researchers from various countries have studied at the lab.

Change of management in ’74
In 1974, the Department of Agriculture took over management of the Kawishiwi buildings as the Northern Research Station. The USFS retained control of the land. The NRS is one of 28 research stations representing 20 states across the Northeastern and Midwestern parts of our country.

As stated in the Environmental Assessment (EA) document, the NRS now claims it has no interest in using, rehabilitating or maintaining the Kawishiwi site buildings. The NRS is ignoring its own mission of working with the themes of studying forest disturbance processes, sustaining forests, providing clean air and water, and inventorying and monitoring resources, and of a focus upon people living in harmony with the landscape. This vision would seem a perfect fit for the Ely area. 

Other researchers and student groups currently using the Kawishiwi Research Lab have advised that the site is an ideal location for studying the effects of climate change on the immediate environment, including forests and wildlife. These concerns are also being ignored.

The USFS and NRS are ignoring another very important consideration within their published EA. On July 21, midway through the citizen comment period, Duluth Metals announced a partnership with Antofagasta (henceforth Twin Metals Minnesota) to do a three-year feasibility study on the Nokomis Deposit of copper nickel mineralization.  

Proposed mine entrance at precise location
The mine plan as presented on the Duluth Metals website puts the entrance to its proposed underground mine precisely in the location of the Kawishiwi Research Station. This also puts the proposed mine entrance alongside the South Kawishiwi River and approximately four miles south of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) border.

Duluth Metals has assayed its Nokomis Deposit as averaging 0.6 percent copper, 0.2 percent nickel, and grams per ton of precious metals. The resulting 99 percent waste rock and tailings, with acid producing potential from the sulfide ores, would need to be stored above ground during mining operations. Underground tunnels pose the risk of land subsidence or drainage of the water table.

Evidently the USFS-NRS doesn’t want to deal with these possibilities. It would be far easier to demolish the Kawishiwi buildings, paving the way for a land-exchange process that would turn the land over to the mining companies.

Against federal policy
The EA, as written and presented, goes against the very federal policy that the USFS and NRS are supposed to be following. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) states that connected actions are not to take place in anticipation of permitting. For instance, there is no guarantee that market conditions in three to five years’ time will support such low-grade mining, or that public opinion will allow mining within an area of national significance.

The USFS is ignoring its mandate to protect the BWCAW under the national Wilderness Act of 1964 and the Boundary Waters Wilderness Act of 1978. In ignoring both fact (mineral leasing and announcement of agreements) and law, the USFS is misleading and misrepresenting the public. 

I have heard that the USFS is arranging to move wolf research to the Ely Ranger Station, even though this does not provide housing for the scientists. The USFS is also contacting the Department of Health to inspect the Kawishiwi site buildings for condemnation. This will pave the way for the USFS to proceed with the Proposed Action of historic
building demolition without an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and without further public comment.

Environmental groups, as well as individual citizens, are requesting that the USFS/NRS complete a full EIS on the Kawishiwi Buildings Disposition, addressing all areas of concern. If we allow copper nickel mining to take place under Superior National Forest and the BWCAW, and under the radar of the environmental review pen, we will lose the character of our wilderness to the bulldozers.

Elanne Palcich, a retired elementary school teacher, lives in Chisholm, Minn.

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