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Minnesotans must protect the BWCA — and craft a sustainable economic vision for the region

Policymakers, Minnesota businesses and advocacy groups must lead in developing solutions to permanently protect the BWCA from copper mining, while creating concrete plans that promote an economically sustainable pathway that lifts everyone.

Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
We believe that protecting Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is good public policy for the environment, the economy and all Minnesotans.

When it comes to tough issues, policymakers must find the answers that work not just for today, but for the generations that follow. Fact-based solutions always are important, but especially when false choices are used to define the debate as some are doing in framing copper mining near the BWCA as a choice between environmental protection and good, well-paying jobs.

The same jobs-vs-environment being used to drive the debate over the proposed Twin Metals copper mine is similar to the challenge one of the authors (Sen. Durenberger) and other policymakers faced in the late 1980s when Minnesota and the country grappled with acid rain caused by the emissions of coal-fired power plants. Many lakes — including many in Minnesota — were being damaged by acidic emissions from power plants.

The science was clear, but the stakes – and rhetoric – were high. Effective solutions to protect the environment were cast as economic crises in the making. The National Association of Manufacturers said it could render the U.S. “a second-class industrial power.” An Edison Electric Institute study, cited in congressional testimony, predicted a $7.1 billion annual hike in American’s electricity bills by 2000. The U.S. Business Roundtable anticipated 2 million jobs would be lost and the Chamber of Commerce foresaw compliance costs of $20 billion a year.

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Evidence-based policy, though, brought together a bipartisan group of legislators, environmentalists, utilities, businesses and consumer organizations to address the very real problem of acid rain. Persistence paid off and legislation was signed in 1990 by President George H.W. Bush. The result? None of the doom and gloom predictions came true. Electricity rates were stable and the economy boomed. Meanwhile, lakes thought lost forever recovered and other lakes – including those in the Boundary Waters – have been preserved.

Former Sen. David Durenberger
Former Sen. David Durenberger
The challenge facing policymakers considering copper mining near the Boundary Waters is similar. Protecting Minnesota’s crown jewel, the Boundary Waters, must be balanced with the long-term economic future of the region. It is not enough just to say “no” to copper mining. Policymakers and others must put forward an economic vision, supported by economic resources and good policy, that will help ensure that every Minnesotan in the region has the opportunity for a good, family-supporting job.

Fortunately, there is already a solid foundation, built in large part by many Minnesotans – individuals, unions, businesses, academic institutions and our nonprofit organizations – who over the years have been leaders in bringing together stakeholders to develop and implement creative solutions that work for all interests. Many Minnesota-based natural resource companies, utilities and others have been good partners in preserving an area essential to who we are as a state while working to enhance the area’s economy.

Time and again, when we have trusted the future to decision-makers in others states or countries, Minnesota interests have been ignored. Now, the proposal for copper mining is to accept the promises for today’s jobs and tomorrow’s remediation when the mines are tapped out to those in other countries who are protected by layers and layers of legal insulation. That’s not a good bet for Minnesota.

Tom Horner
Tom Horner
The Boundary Waters is an outstanding natural resource, and the current economy is already built around assets that, if properly nurtured, offer great promise. The three counties housing the BWCA rank high in entrepreneurial activity, creative workers, clean air and water and per capita investment — all big draws for the region. Overall, the three counties have a “human amenity index” that is higher than 90 percent of other Minnesota counties. Notably these very same attributes would be at risk if copper mining commences near the Boundary Waters. Independent studies show that copper mining near the Boundary Waters would undermine these economic strengths.

Good public policy most often arises through debate and analysis. These are qualities that, historically, Minnesota has exhibited in spades. Right now, the struggle over copper mining near the Boundary Waters is mired in debate. It has been for years. But the fact is that the science on the risks is clear; now, it’s time to move to answers. For that policymakers, Minnesota businesses and advocacy groups must lead in developing solutions to permanently protect the Boundary Waters from copper mining, while creating concrete plans that promote an economically sustainable pathway that lifts everyone. Minnesotans have done it before, and we will do it again.

David Durenberger served as senior U.S. senator from Minnesota from 1978 to 1995. His books include “When Republicans Were Progressive.” Tom Horner, who served as Durenberger’s press secretary and chief of staff, was the Independence Party’s candidate for governor in 2010. A co-founder of Himle Horner Inc., he is currently a principal in Horner Strategies, a public affairs and public relations company.

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