Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Community Voices features opinion pieces from a wide variety of authors and perspectives. (Submission Guidelines)

Power structure at McCollum-bill hearing shows what local BWCA supporters are up against

HR 5598, a bill introduced by U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum of Minnesota’s 5th District, would ban sulfide-ore copper mining on all federal public lands in the Rainy River Drainage Basin in Minnesota.

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, which is the wild heart of Minnesota’s great north woods and one of the premier expanses of public land in America, is under dire threat. Chilean mining giant Antofagasta, with the support of some powerful, self-interested organizations and politicians, proposes to build a vast sulfide-ore copper mining operation in the Superior National Forest adjacent to and upstream from the Boundary Waters.

Steve Piragis
Steve Piragis
This array of powerful interests has made clear that they could not possibly care less about the health of the Boundary Waters, about the sustainable economy that the wilderness supports in northeastern Minnesota, or about the priceless social benefits that the wilderness provides to its owners, the people of the United States.

The nature of the power structure arrayed against those of us who love the Boundary Waters and whose livelihoods depend on it were on clear display in the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 5. I went to Washington with other local Ely business people, including another canoe trip outfitter, an owner of an outdoor clothing manufacturing company and winter dogsled business, and the executive director of a wilderness-focused nonprofit organization that has been taking people into the Boundary Waters for many decades. Together the payrolls for our five businesses provide over $4 million in annual income to the Ely area.

Our purpose was to attend a hearing on HR 5598, a bill introduced by U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum of Minnesota’s 5th District, that would ban sulfide-ore copper mining on all federal public lands in the Rainy River Drainage Basin in Minnesota. Such a ban would protect the Boundary Waters by eliminating the enormous threat of acid mine drainage and environmental degradation from proposed sulfide-ore mines in the BWCA headwaters.

Article continues after advertisement

Jason Zabokrtsky, owner of Ely Outfitting Company and Boundary Waters Guide Service, testified at the hearing on HR 5598:

The Boundary Waters region is thriving because of its environmental qualities, recreational opportunities, and quality of life. The Ely Chamber of Commerce markets Ely as “the last great pure experience.” Approximately 250 businesses belong to the Chamber, which attests to the strength and diversity of our small business economy, and our Ely community is the envy of other small towns.

Our businesses depend on the growing in-migration of new residents and a steady influx of tens of thousands of visitors, which we stand to lose from sulfide-ore copper mining. Why? Because the degradation of our water, forests, and air, and the loss of quietude, dark skies, and wildlife that are the inevitable consequences of this toxic form of mining will make our community unattractive for residents and visitors.

Although sulfide-ore mining boosters like U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber of Minnesota’s 8th District are quick to claim that opposition to copper mining near the Boundary Waters is an “insult to local people,” the Antofagasta supporters at the Feb. 5 hearing were not local people. They were instead an Antofagasta/ Twin Metals executive, a Minnesota Power executive, the chief lobbyist for the Minnesota copper-mining industry, and an employee of a mining construction company. In fact, the real insult to locals like me and my employees, friends, and colleagues, and to the thousands of other people who live in northeastern Minnesota because of the Boundary Waters, is the determination of powerful organizations to ride roughshod over the public interest. The great majority of Minnesotans get this — poll after poll shows a strong majority of people in every part of the state opposed to copper mining near the Boundary Waters.

The people of the greater Ely community — the people who drive the Ely economy — live here because of the Boundary Waters. Getting outdoors close to home is helping many of us cope with the stresses caused by the pandemic while maintaining the necessary social distancing. Traveling in the Boundary Waters will be a major part of the healing process for thousands of people as we emerge from this crisis. We want to share this magnificent, wild canoe country with you. When it is safe to do so, please visit the Boundary Waters, support local businesses, and help us save the BWCA from insatiable special interests that seek to destroy it.

Steve and Nancy Piragis and their daughter Elli own Piragis Northwoods Company, which operates on the main street of Ely, Minnesota.


If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, see our Submission Guidelines.)