Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.


Biden administration imposes 20-year mining moratorium in watershed of BWCA

The moratorium will bar Twin Metals from constructing a proposed copper, cobalt and nickel mine.

Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

This story was last updated at 4:21 p.m.

WASHINGTON – The Interior Department on Thursday announced a 20-year mining moratorium on 225,000 acres of the Superior National Forest that bars Twin Metals from constructing a proposed copper, cobalt and nickel mine in the area.

The moratorium is a result of a Forest Service study of the environmental and economic impact of building an underground mine in the Rainy River Watershed, which covers the forest and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

“Protecting a place like Boundary Waters is key to supporting the health of the watershed and its surrounding wildlife, upholding our Tribal trust and treaty responsibilities, and boosting the local recreation economy,” Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland said in a statement. “With an eye toward protecting this special place for future generations, I have made this decision using the best-available science and extensive public input.”

Article continues after advertisement

The decision was cheered by environmental and conservation groups that sought protection of the Boundary Waters and battled Twin Metals over its proposed mine, which they said posed an environmental risk.

Meanwhile, supporters of the proposed new copper, cobalt and nickel mine denounced the decision.

Superior National Forest withdrawal lands
Bureau of Land Management
Superior National Forest withdrawal lands
“Today is an attack on our way of life,” said Rep. Pete Stauber, R-8th District. “Joe Biden banned mining in 225,000 acres of Minnesota’s Iron Range, and locked up development of taconite, copper, nickel, cobalt, platinum-group elements, and more.”

Stauber said the moratorium would only spur unsafe and dirty mining overseas and increased use of child labor in those operations. He also said he would use his new position as a chairman of House Natural Resources subcommittee with jurisdiction over energy and mining to hold hearings into the Biden administration’s actions.

“I can assure you that this Administration, from the President to the Forest Service, to the Interior Department, will answer for the pain they elected to cause my constituents today,” Stauber said.

Meanwhile,  Twin Metals Minnesota said it was “deeply disappointed and stunned that the federal government has chosen to enact a 20-year moratorium on mining across a quarter million acres of land in northeast Minnesota.”

“This region sits on top of one of the world’s largest deposits of critical minerals that are vital in meeting our nation’s goals to transition to a clean energy future, to create American jobs, to strengthen our national security and to bolster domestic supply chains,” the mining company said in a statement.

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness extends 150 miles along the U.S.-Canada border, covering more than 1 million acres with over 1,100 lakes and 1,500 miles of canoe routes.

The Forest Service determined the risk posed by mining in the area was too high. It also determined more than 350 species that depend on the ecosystem of the Superior National Forest and Boundary Waters were also at risk. And it said the area withdrawn from mining includes all the land ceded to Lake Superior Tribes in 1854 by the federal government so the moratorium is need to protect the treaty rights of the Bois Forte, Fond du Lac and Grand Portage bands to hunt, fish and gather wild rice in the area.

The Forest Service also determined that there would be an adverse economic impact if mining despoiled the Boundary Waters, which draws 150,000 visitors each year.

Article continues after advertisement

Taconite is mined in the Superior National Forest and the moratorium will not impact on those operations.

But environmentalists argued that mining for minerals like copper, cobalt and nickel in the forest – which require deep extraction in an underground mine – would produce tailings that can be dangerous sources of toxic chemicals that would pollute the Rainy River Watershed – and the Boundary Waters.

Twin Metals vows its plans for a new mine are safe and says the new metals that would be extracted are needed to boost clean technologies aimed at fighting climate change.

Thursday’s announcement follows action by the Biden administration last year to cancel two federal mining leases owned by Twin Metals – prompting the mining company to sue. The moratorium may provoke new legal action by the mining company.

While the moratorium would block Twin Metals from developing what would be one of the largest undeveloped copper-nickel resources in the world and make the area off limits to other mines, the ban could be scrapped by a subsequent administration.

“I can’t speculate on what future administrations will or won’t do,” an Interior official said at a briefing for reporters on Thursday.

However, Becky Rom, the national chair of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, a coalition of environmental and conservation groups, said it’s unlikely the moratorium would be scrapped and more likely that it would be renewed because the federal government has had a history of increasing protections on the Boundary Waters though clean water legislation.

Still, Rom called the public land order that imposes the moratorium “the most important land conservation measure to impact Minnesota in the last 45 years.”

“Today’s science-based decision is a massive win for Boundary Waters protection,” she said.

Article continues after advertisement

Haaland was restricted in what she could do to protect the Boundary Waters.  The Secretary of the Interior has the authority to withdraw this area for a maximum of 20 years, subject to renewal. Only Congress can legislate a permanent withdrawal.

Efforts to do so, however, failed in the last Congress and it’s unlikely they will succeed in this one, which has a GOP-led U.S. House.

Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., who has been lobbied by environmental groups to introduce a bill that would permanently put the Superior National Forest off limits to copper sulfide mining, hailed the Interior Department’s action.

“We are a mining state, but mining is not appropriate everywhere,” Smith said.