The only thing more valuable than the cathartic camping experience the Boundary Waters Wilderness offers is the copper that rests beneath the million acres of pristine lakes and forests.
Well, I should clarify: it depends on whether you consider permanent wilderness preservation or a temporary mining operation more valuable.
The Boundary Waters Wilderness has always been the pride of northern Minnesota, hosting 165,000 annual visitors and stimulating a thriving ecotourism economy. Despite this heavy use, strict regulations and responsible travelers have ensured that the land retains its original form – a form Twin Metals Minnesota aims to tarnish with a sulfide-ore copper mine. This type of mining – never done before in Minnesota – would pollute the water that circulates through the Boundary Waters, before flowing into Voyageurs National Park and winding across Canada, emptying finally into the Hudson Bay.
The proposed mine would undeniably cause irreversible damage to the environment and economy. But preventative legislation is possible, and the next two weeks offer the best opportunity yet for permanent protection.
Environmental activists, led by the Save the Boundary Waters Campaign, have been advocating for preventive legislation since 2013, and their persistence may finally be rewarded by this “lame-duck” Congress. The moment is right: as an intern for the Save the Boundary Waters Campaign this past summer, I witnessed instances of bipartisan support for environmental legislation in my meetings with congressional members. That type of bipartisan support was reflected in 2020 when Congress passed a massive omnibus bill related to environmental conservation, management, and recreation. This opportunity has an expiration date, though. Mining remains a predominantly partisan issue, and environmental bills are unlikely to pass once Republicans take control of the House in January.
Fortunately, Rep. Betty McCollum (D-4th Dist.) and 55 co-sponsors have introduced H.R. 2794, a bill that would permanently protect approximately 234,328 acres of federal land in the Boundary Waters. The bill passed subcommittee in July and is prepared to go to the House floor for a vote. The next step is for a companion bill to be introduced in the Senate. Although both Minnesota senators have been hesitant to introduce a bill, the pressure they currently face is palpable. These are five reasons why now is a critical moment for the Boundary Waters, and why you should voice your support for legislative action.
First, a poll conducted immediately after the midterm election found that nearly 70% of respondents support legislation that permanently protects the Boundary Waters, including 87% of Democrats, 61% of independents, and 51% of Republicans. Public support has grown significantly, due likely to widespread education about the dangers of sulfide-ore mining, and it justifies passing legislation. Additionally, compiled across numerous Forest Service open-comment periods, citizens have submitted more than 500,000 comments in support of a mining ban.
Second, a 2019 Harvard study indicates that a mine would ultimately negatively impact the regional economy. For an economy that generates roughly a billion dollars annually and employs 17,000 people, a mine would decrease jobs, economic activity, real estate prices, and health outcomes. This study effectively refutes the primary argument in favor of mining, as supporters typically claim that mining will stimulate the economy and produce more jobs – a claim fundamentally inaccurate in the long-run.
Third, the Forest Service has recommended a mining ban to Department of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland through an environmental assessment it released in June. The document was the culmination of years of scientific study and economic modeling and advises a twenty-year moratorium for 225,504 acres of federal land in the Boundary Waters. While these steps taken by the Biden administration are positive, they could be reversed easily by forthcoming administrations and should be viewed as secondary to permanent protection efforts progressing through Congress. However, the environmental assessment findings are striking, clear, and further exemplify the gravity of this exact moment for the protection movement.
Fourth, the formal support from Chippewa (Ojibwe) tribes is a vital consideration for the movement. The Boundary Waters has a 9,000-year history as a home and trade route for indigenous people, and if land reclamation is unrealistic, the least Congress can do is account for their opinions on the status of the Boundary Waters and protect the reservations that would be impacted by the proposed mine.
Finally, recent environmental legislative successes, like the Inflation Reduction Act, indicate that the current political and social climate is conducive to environmental progress. The divisiveness of environmental issues will limit the extent of legislation, but activists and congressional members must capitalize on a temporarily favorable atmosphere.
For the Boundary Waters protection movement, it’s unlikely a better opportunity than the present one will arise soon. Public support, scientific studies, economic assessments, indigenous allyship and momentum are all coalescing in time for the kind of “lame-duck” congressional session that historically produces major environmental wins. While some may argue for a slow, calculated strategy, there is no telling when both the presidency and Congress will be controlled by individuals sympathetic to the cause. Over the past three terms, the status of protection has oscillated with each new president. If a Republican takes presidential office in 2024, the mining leases could likely be reinstated, despite current efforts.
In the end, it is primarily up to Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN) to either introduce a companion bill to McCollum’s House bill or negotiate a new omnibus bill. However, the actions of our representatives are contingent on the pressure they feel from constituents. Considering the opportune environment, now is the time to voice your support for the permanent protection of the Boundary Waters by contacting Smith and your House representative (congressional switchboard at  224-3121).
Zach Spindler-Krage is a Minnesota native and Boundary Waters activist, currently studying political science, history, and policy studies at Grinnell College in Iowa.