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The imperative of permanent protection for the Boundary Waters wilderness

Every year since 1964, when the Wilderness Act was passed, more people have visited the Boundary Waters than any other national Wilderness.

South Temperance Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
South Temperance Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland’s recent cancellation of two federal mining leases in the headwaters of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota was a clear affirmation of the rule of law – the prior administration had illegally renewed the leases in favor of a Chilean mining conglomerate – and of the imperative to protect America’s most popular wilderness area. The cancellation also signaled that the pieces could very soon be in place to provide this national treasure the permanent protection that it deserves.

Every year since 1964, when the Wilderness Act was passed, more people have visited the Boundary Waters than any other national Wilderness. Covering 1.1 million acres along the Canadian border, it has more than a thousand pristine lakes spread out through vast stretches of forests and wetlands. The Boundary Waters is home to hundreds of species of mammals, birds, fish and other creatures. People of all ages and abilities come from all over the U.S. and around the world to travel by canoe and experience the incomparable beauty of this watery landscape.

All of this – plus the flourishing wilderness-based economy in northeastern Minnesota – would be at serious risk if sulfide-ore copper mining were permitted in the watershed of the Boundary Waters. Sulfide-ore mining, which the EPA has called the most toxic industry in America, generates sulfuric acid when the ore comes in contact with air and water, resulting in the release of acid and dissolved heavy metals into groundwater and surface water.

The Obama administration took steps to protect the Boundary Waters in 2016, but as was reported, the Trump administration, after a heavy lobbying barrage by Chilean mining giant Antofagasta, twisted the lease language and the law and improperly reversed the Obama administration action. The recent decision by the Biden administration meticulously details the sweetheart deal and favorable treatment received by the South American conglomerate.

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Minnesota Sen. Tina Smith, who is showing growing interest in the issue, found the recent Department of Interior decision “persuasive” and added that it “represents a clear commitment on the part of the Biden administration to make sure we follow the law.”

Even prior to the cancellation of the mineral leases, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management had begun the “mineral withdrawal” process under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act for 225,378 acres of federal land and mineral rights in the watershed of the Boundary Waters. The major component of this process is a scientific, cultural and economic study of the likely impacts if mining is permitted on the lands proposed to be withdrawn. If the study concludes that sulfide-ore copper mining in the watershed of the Boundary Waters will likely result in serious harm, the Secretary of the Interior can impose a 20-year moratorium on mining in the withdrawal area.

A 20-year moratorium, or “withdrawal,” seems likely.  That action, based on the study currently underway, would be a clarion call for permanent protection for this unique and precious place.  Rep. Betty McCollum of Minnesota has introduced a bill, HR 2794, providing for a permanent ban on sulfide-ore mining in the Boundary Waters watershed. Minnesota’s Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Smith are both firmly committed to a science-based approach – the kind of approach that is the essence of the mineral withdrawal study – for determining the fate of the Boundary Waters watershed.

Richard Moe
Richard Moe
Passing a permanent protection bill based on HR2794 would be the culmination of more than 100 years of conflict between those who see the Boundary Waters as nothing more than a place to be exploited by industrial enterprises and those who see it as a place of refuge to be preserved for future generations. Protective measures began in 1902 when President Theodore Roosevelt saw the place for what it was and protected 500,000 acres from disposition to private parties. Development interests have persisted, but the tide has rolled inexorably toward greater protection. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act of 1978, which took some steps toward protecting the watershed from mining, is the most recent of several federal enactments in the last century that have enhanced protection for the Wilderness.

My friend and former boss, the late Walter Mondale, canoed and fished the Boundary Waters for most of his life. He worked tirelessly in his final years for its permanent protection. If he were still with us, he would be cheering on the Biden administration, Rep. McCollum, and Sen. Klobuchar and Smith.

The star most appropriately aligned with this effort is L’Etoile du Nord, the Star of the North.  It is the motto of the State of Minnesota, chosen in part because the North Star guided the voyageurs through the waters of northern Minnesota. May it guide us now to permanent protection of those waters.

A native of Minnesota, Richard Moe was president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and a board member of the Conservation Lands Foundation. He served as chief of staff to Vice President Walter Mondale and as an assistant to President Jimmy Carter.