Earlier this fall I had the honor of joining former Vice President Walter Mondale, current and former Minnesota elected officials of both parties, and former U.S. Forest Service leaders to help hundreds celebrate the 40th anniversary of the 1978 Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act. The act created essential protections for Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Wilderness (BWCA) — an icon of Minnesota’s identity and a vital part of this nation’s treasured system of public lands.
As agriculture secretary in the Obama administration I was responsible for one of the most important federal decisions affecting this special place since the signing of the 1978 Act. With my concurrence, the U.S. Forest Service denied renewal of two sulfide-ore copper mining leases on the doorstep of the BWCA and initiated an in-depth scientific study that could have resulted in 20 years of protection for federal lands in the Boundary Waters region from this destructive form of mining.
Those decisions have been reversed by the Trump administration.
Right decision for both BWCA and economic development
At the 40th Anniversary celebration I reflected on the decisions we made and why we made them. What stood out most was not only that the Boundary Waters is a priceless wilderness (although it certainly is that), but also that it was the right decision to make for the economic development of the region.
The drumbeat from the mining industry is always the purported upside of “jobs.” A particular project would provide some hypothetical number of additional jobs and improve the economy. But history and solid research actually shows something quite different with respect to communities near places like the Boundary Waters that are powerful economic drivers on their own.
These places not only create potent recreational economies but also attract new residents who raise families, start businesses, telecommute, or retire, all the while spending their time and money in building the community.
Region ranks high in key categories
Minnesota’s Boundary Waters region ranks high in key categories that drive sustainable economic development. St. Louis, Lake, and Cook counties display characteristics identified in a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City that lead to economic success for rural areas: a high proportion of creative workers, a rich entrepreneurial context, clean air and water, and high-quality public lands for outdoor recreation.
These three counties are at the 85th percentile in Minnesota with respect to workers in professional, creative-class occupations; at the 70th percentile in terms of people engaged in entrepreneurial activities; and at the 90th percentile in terms of investment income per capita. Overall, the three counties have a “human amenity index” that is higher than 90 percent of other Minnesota counties
A project like the proposed Antofagasta Twin Metals mine, which threatens the fundamental character and integrity of the Boundary Waters, puts all that at risk.
In some places it makes sense to engage in the mining of copper and other sulfide-bound metals. But when that activity presents a grave danger to lands and waters that are a national treasure, and further threatens to displace the growing, sustainable economy already in place, it makes no sense to permit it — especially considering not only the inevitable boom-and-bust of mining but also increasing automation and the dramatic decline in mining jobs.
All of this is borne out by a recent independent economic study by a Harvard University professor that showed that over a 20-year period there would be more jobs AND more income created for the region by protecting the Boundary Waters and allowing the current economy to continue to grow.
Old model is increasingly fragile
As America moves forward in this era of world markets and rapid technological growth, an old model of rural economic development dependent on resource extraction is increasingly fragile. Further, the cost of this model to taxpayers is considerable, as government often pays for clean-up and for the social costs when workers are laid off in price downturns and when the inevitable mine closing occurs.
For communities with outstanding natural amenities like the Boundary Waters, the current economic development pathway is a much sounder approach.
If we nurture the entrepreneurial spirit of citizens and invest in key infrastructure like broadband, we can create the kind of sustainable rural economies that are buffered from the whims of global markets and CEOs halfway around the world, and provide a stable ground for generation after generation of Minnesota families.
Tom Vilsack served as the secretary of agriculture in the Obama administration. Before that, Vilsack served two terms as the governor of Iowa, served in the Iowa state Senate and was the mayor of Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. He is a native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
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