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Protect the BWCA: The stakes are high

Without attempts to implement more protective regulations, the opportunities for posterity to enjoy a pristine wilderness area might be dwindling.

photo of sunset over lake in boundary waters
As the most-visited wilderness area in the U.S., the Boundary Waters epitomizes the nation’s interest in appreciating the natural elements and upholding environmental biodiversity.

photo of article author
Photo by Laura Gregory
Kiwa Anisman
Beginning with the creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1892, the American people have guided the international effort to appreciate and preserve the natural beauty surrounding us. This initiative has encouraged the United States to see the intrinsic value and benefits of protecting national forests, reserves, and wilderness areas. Even more so, as the state known for its expansive and pure bodies of water, Minnesota has devoted itself to maintaining its valuable sources of water and biodiversity. However, as a result of recent Trump administration decisions, the protection of an invaluable wilderness area, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA), has been compromised.

Despite our nation’s interest in exploring the beautiful outdoors, continual adherence to the principles of capitalism has encouraged the exploitation of resources for personal economic gain. Amidst these competing circumstances, only one victor can emerge. Based on the crucial setbacks during the Trump administration regarding environmental protection, the current policies being upheld suggest that the Boundary Waters might succumb to the avarice of mining interests. Without attempts to implement more protective regulations, the opportunities for posterity to enjoy this pristine and untainted wilderness area might be dwindling.

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The territory has been threatened before, but not to the current extent. Beginning in the 1960s, companies and groups interested in timber extraction and recreational activities, such as motor use, gained momentum and were permitted to continue some activity under the 1964 Wilderness Act. Fortunately, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act was passed in 1978, which, as Richard Moe reminded us in a recent op-ed, “expanded its size, restricted motorboat use, ended logging and banned mining in the wilderness and some adjacent lands.” Despite the momentous step in the right direction four decades ago, economic gain has inspired companies to continue fighting for access to the lucrative sulfide-based metals.

‘Absolutely the wrong place …’

In 2014, the Forest Service began a review to determine the impact of copper mining in the region. According to Tom Tidwell, chief of the U.S. Forest Service at the time, “The review process proved conclusively that the watershed of the Boundary Waters is absolutely the wrong place for this type of mining.” Because the minerals being sought after are found within sulfide-containing ore, exposure to air and water can form sulfuric acid, causing irreversible damage and contamination to nearby waterways.

As a result of the review strongly disapproving of mining activities, in 2016 the Obama administration denied the renewal of mineral leases to Twin Metals Minnesota, a Chilean-owned mining company seeking to extract copper and nickel from a portion just a few miles away from the Boundary Waters territory. The administration concluded that the “inherent potential risk that development of a regionally untested copper-nickel sulfide ore mine within the same watershed as the BWCA might cause serious and irreplaceable harm to this unique, iconic, and irreplaceable wilderness area.” The Obama administration also ordered an even more thorough study on the impact of mining on the area to be conducted, which would place a 20-year moratorium on mining activity.

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But those victories were ephemeral. Decisions of the Trump administration have reversed the protective measures that currently deny mining privileges in the Boundary Waters territory. In May 2018, the Trump administration disregarded the conclusions of the review process beginning in 2014 and reinstated the Twin Metal leases to mine within the watershed. Even worse, in September 2018, the Trump administration stopped the study that would have placed a 20-year ban on mining, invalidating significant progress made to protect the Boundary Waters territory from environmental degradation and contamination.

Might set a precedent

As the most-visited wilderness area in the U.S., the Boundary Waters epitomizes the nation’s interest in appreciating the natural elements and upholding environmental biodiversity. If we make choices to jeopardize the protection of such a treasured stretch filled with lakes, forests and wetlands, what does that mean for the future of other lesser-known public lands that contain opportunities for mining or otherwise lucrative activities? Allowing mining activities near the Boundary Waters territory might set precedent for other protected lands to be subject to similar environmental damage.

Leaving a once pristine, historic expanse vulnerable to nearby mining would forever affect the beauty and value of this wilderness area. If contamination occurs at a level of any magnitude, the interlinked bodies of water, from groundwater to rivers and lakes, will never return to a pure, untainted watershed. If extracting resources from fragile ecosystems indeed has adverse consequences for the environment, we must proceed cautiously and conduct more comprehensive research as to mining’s potential impact on the environment.

By voting in elections, calling state legislators, and supporting environmental advocacy organizations such as Save the Boundary Waters and Environment Minnesota, we can contribute to the national campaign to protect our ecosystems. Through active participation and coalition building, we can raise awareness and demand that our government adopt a similar dedication to the reinstatement of environmental sustainability and justice. The choice is ours, and the time is now.

Kiwa Anisman is a first-year student at Macalester College who plans to study political science and environmental studies.


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