Last month U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber signed on to an attempt to invalidate the votes of millions of Americans and overturn a free and fair election, and then last week in MinnPost had the gall to mewl about “process” and “politicization” when it comes to protecting the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) from the threat of sulfide-ore copper mining. The cringeworthiness of this hypocrisy is only compounded by the fact of how wrong he is on both counts. No one injected more politics into the issue of mining near the Boundary Waters than Stauber and his outgoing president, Donald Trump.
In 2016 the chief of the U.S. Forest Service issued the Forest Service’s decision that sulfide-ore mining in the watershed of the Boundary Waters would pose an unacceptable risk of irreparable harm to the wilderness. Accordingly, the Forest Service refused to consent to renewal of two mineral leases formerly held by Antofagasta’s Twin Metals and asked that the federal mineral rights in the watershed be withdrawn from leasing for 20 years under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act. The federal government began work on an Environmental Impact Statement to study the effect of such a withdrawal.
Every step that the Obama administration took to protect the Boundary Waters is part of a process established in federal law under which outstanding public lands can be protected from mining. Stauber disingenuously contends that process wasn’t followed; in fact, he just doesn’t like the process, because it lays bare the incalculable damage that Antofagasta’s Twin Metals project would inflict on the land, water, and economy of the Boundary Waters region.
Decisions based on scientific analysis
The decisions not to renew the leases and to study mining in the area were at every step based on scientific analysis by the Forest Service, many public- and private-sector scientists, and other professionals. To claim that the Obama administration action was taken at the “very last minute” ignores that the Forest Service had been gathering scientific reports and peer-reviewed studies for more than three years. The reports and studies, none of which has been credibly refuted, demonstrate the extensive harm to forests, water, wildlife, and the regional economy of northeastern Minnesota that would be caused by copper mining in the Boundary Waters watershed.
Contrast the Forest Service’s rigorous analysis leading to its 2016 decision with Stauber’s shameless shilling on behalf of Antofagasta in its effort to have the Trump administration reverse the process of protecting the Boundary Waters watershed. That the undoing was based on nothing but pure politics is crystal clear — the Trump administration cited no science in support of its action.
Antofagasta had been greasing the skids from the earliest days of the Trump administration. Even before Trump took office, a billionaire member of the Chilean family that controls Antofagasta bought a mansion in Washington, D.C., and soon rented it to Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner. Both Donald Trump and Mike Pence declared at Minnesota political rallies in 2018 that the Superior National Forest would be opened to copper mining. Those declarations were based on the calculation that kowtowing to mining interests might generate enough support for Trump that he could win Minnesota in the 2020 election.
Stauber team’s emails
While Trump was making broad-brush promises to advance the interests of Antofagasta, Stauber was doing the detail work. E-mails obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests show that, among other things, Stauber’s office told Trump’s Forest Service that Antofagasta “is getting increasingly concerned about the stipulations put forward by the Forest Service on the up or down vote they require for mineral lease renewals every ten years.” Stauber’s staff member ended the email with, “Do you mind setting up a quick call next week where we can recenter and get on the same page?” Getting “on the same page” meant satisfying Antofagasta’s demand that it not be bothered by the pesky legal requirement that mining leases can only be granted and renewed with the consent of the Forest Service.
The Trump Forest Service complied. It illegally issued leases that could last forever at Antofagasta’s option. No justifiable (or legal) reason exists to so flagrantly ignore the public interest — to give away public assets purely for political gain.
The Trump administration’s conduct in undoing protection for the Boundary Waters showed contempt for science and sound public policy. The administration offered no credible science to refute the detailed studies and reports that underlaid the 2016 findings by the then-chief of the Forest Service that copper mining in the Boundary Waters watershed would pose a deadly threat to the wilderness. It cited nothing to refute detailed economic analysis that shows the long-term economic welfare of the Boundary Waters region would be served far better by prohibiting such mining.
What it did instead, with the willing help and political interference of Rep. Stauber and others, was engage in crass political calculation with the intent of influencing the outcome of an election. The people of Minnesota and the U.S., and their priceless Boundary Waters Wilderness, deserve better.
Alex Falconer is the director of the Boundary Waters Action Fund.
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