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Our year in the BWCA reinforced the critical need to protect it from proposed sulfide mining

Photo by Ron Doctor
Amy and Dave Freeman

Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) is one of the most spectacular places in America, a wild landscape of lakes, streams, forests, wetlands and wildlife covering 1.1 million acres along the Canadian border. More than 250,000 visitors from all over the world are drawn each year by its silence and solitude. Wolves, loons, walleye, towering pines, and eagles abound. Water is the essence of this ruggedly beautiful roadless labyrinth.

We just finished spending an entire year in this wild treasure to raise awareness of a major threat to the health of the BWCA – a Chilean mining company wants to build a massive sulfide-ore copper mine nearby. The proposed Twin Metals Minnesota mine site is along the South Kawishiwi River, which is adjacent to – and upstream of – the wilderness.

Numerous scientific studies show that a mine in this location would mean the end of this priceless wilderness as we know it. The clearest and most present danger of a sulfide-ore copper mine is water pollution – called acid mine drainage, a toxic combination of sulfuric acid, heavy metals such as arsenic and mercury and sulfates, that will leach into surrounding lakes, rivers, streams and groundwater, killing fish and the plant-life. A recent study demonstrated that even under normal mining operations acid mine drainage would flow into the BWCA and spread throughout its countless waterways.

Both tangible and intangible value

The true value of the Boundary Waters is hard to quantify, but government studies show that it helps support 17,000 outdoor and recreation jobs and drive over $850 million in economic activity each year. But even more than that, we see the BWCA’s less tangible (but in many ways more powerful) effects through the letters, postcards, emails, petition signatures, photos, paintings and songs we have received from tens of thousands of people who are speaking loudly in defense of the world’s greatest canoe country wilderness. Last week we sat at the water’s edge with a mother watching her children play in a wilderness lake. One of her sons is battling leukemia. She explained that her son’s wilderness experiences have fostered resilience and taught him that pain and discomfort are temporary – lessons she says are helping him fight for his life.

Fortunately, the federal agencies that manage our public lands are hearing from people who live throughout the country. The U.S. Forest Service has the authority to stop this dangerous mining proposal by withholding consent to federal mineral leases in the Superior National Forest. The Forest Service said it is “deeply concerned” about sulfide-ore copper mining in close proximity to the wilderness and is considering withholding its consent.

Follow the scientific evidence

We urge the Forest Service to follow the scientific evidence of harm and end the immediate threat. But the specter of future mining projects hangs over the wilderness. That is why we are urging the federal government, specifically the Bureau of Land Management (which manages federal mineral leases), to withdraw all public lands in the Boundary Waters watershed from the federal mining program.

During our yearlong journey we visited over 450 different bodies of water in our quest to protect this national treasure. When we left he BWCA after an entire year, there were still several hundred interconnected streams and lakes that we did not have the time or energy to visit. That’s how vast the BWCA is.

During this journey we missed birthdays and funerals, weddings and graduations, precious time with friends and family, endured months of frigid temperatures, rain, sleet, snow, bugs, and many discomforts that are typically easily avoided outside the wilderness. We did this because we knew it is critical that we draw attention to the imminent threat of sulfide-ore copper mining to our beloved canoe country wilderness.

To some, this could be seen as a sacrifice, but as is often the case with places as special as this one, the BWCA has given us far more than we lost. It’s why people from around the country and the world flock to the BWCA like loons. For them, the Boundary Waters will continue to enrich their lives and the lives of millions — if we have the foresight to protect this amazing place.

Dave and Amy Freeman are wilderness guides and 2014 National Geographic Adventurers of the Year. They just left the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness last week after spending a full year there to raise awareness of the threat of sulfide-ore copper mining to the Wilderness. 

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