The battle over mining in northern Minnesota’s wilderness hit a turning point early this month, when the administration of Donald Trump ended a study of the impact that copper-nickel mining might have on Superior National Forest and the nearby Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness — removing a major obstacle for such mining projects to move forward.
That study was ordered by the Barack Obama administration in the closing weeks of his presidency, and officials there argued that the extraction of copper and nickel could present a grave and unacceptable risk to the pristine, federally protected lands and waters of this well-loved region. Depending on its results, the study could have led to a 20-year moratorium on copper-nickel mining in the area.
But backers of this type of mining, who argue new projects could be an economic lifeline to thousands of workers in the region, vocally protested the idea that the area could be withdrawn from mining activity by the federal government. Since Trump took office, a group of Republican and Democratic lawmakers have been lobbying hard to undo the Obama administration’s actions.
The 18-month tug of war effectively ended when Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced the environmental assessment hadn’t shown any reason to withdraw these areas from mining activity, and signaled exploration of minerals here could freely move forward.
While advocates for mining cheered, environmentalists were crestfallen, having suffered a significant setback to their mission of stopping a form of mining they believe will never be safe to conduct here. It is, effectively, back to square one for those who believe additional measures are necessary to protect this area from copper-nickel mining activity.
However, federal lawmakers and activist groups are vowing to keep up the fight, arguing that there are still avenues to block copper-nickel mining projects from moving forward — like in the court of law, and the court of public opinion.
A victory for the mining economy
The assessment of the impact of copper-nickel mining in a 234,000-acre area of Superior National Forest had been underway for 15 months, conducted by the U.S. Forest Service, which is overseen by the Department of Agriculture. The review, according to the government, included a “biological and economic impact assessment” along with an analysis of impacts on water resources, wilderness, and “cultural resources.”
Anticipated to be a key component of that review was what effect copper-nickel mining might have on the Boundary Waters, which sit a few miles from areas where mineral exploration — and ultimately mining itself — might occur. The Obama administration based its 2016 decision to further review mining here on concerns that copper-nickel mines could leak toxic materials into the protected Boundary Waters ecosystem.
On Sept. 6, Perdue announced that the government’s review “did not reveal new scientific information,” and based on that, the Forest Service would not withdraw this swath of land from mining activity. (The Forest Service did not release to the public the findings from the study that would inform its conclusion.)
In announcing the decision — which the USDA framed as “remov[ing] a major obstacle to mineral leasing in Minnesota” — Perdue said that the government has a duty to protect the environment, but that it must “put our national forests to work for the taxpayers to support local economies and create jobs. … We can do these two things at once: protect the integrity of the watershed and contribute to economic growth and stronger communities.”
Now, the USDA said, “interested companies may seek to lease minerals in the watershed,” outlining the existing regulatory process for reviewing mining activity, which includes oversight from the Forest Service. In May, the Trump administration undid another major Obama administration action here, restoring mineral leases that the mining company Twin Metals held in this area, which were denied in December 2016.
Gerald Tyler, who helps run the Ely-based pro-mining advocacy group Up North Jobs, said he anticipates that Twin Metals will submit mining permits for Superior National Forest in the next 18 months, which would kick off a multiyear process of assessing the environmental impact of the proposed mining project.
Tyler argues the environmental study commissioned by the Obama administration was unnecessary, citing a 2012 study conducted by the federal government that found copper-nickel mining exploration could go forward in Superior National Forest. “In my opinion,” Tyler told MinnPost, “this whole thing was done to delay the project.”
Backers of mining in Congress have spent over a year trying various ways to chip away at the Obama administration moves. Rep. Tom Emmer, the 6th District Republican, has been particularly active, filing amendments on larger pieces of legislation to undermine the Obama actions, directly lobbying administration officials, and even introducing a stand-alone bill, titled the MINER Act. That legislation, which not only would have reversed the Obama moves but barred future administrations from taking similar steps to withdraw Minnesota land from mining, passed the House in December, but was not taken up in the Senate.
Emmer has frequently partnered with DFL Rep. Rick Nolan, who represents northeastern Minnesota, in pushing pro-mining policy. (Nolan welcomed Emmer and several members of the Western Caucus, a group of conservative lawmakers that favors increased natural resource extraction on public lands, to Twin Metals’ Ely offices last year.)
In a statement, Emmer hailed the Trump decision as a major victory for Minnesota. “Despite arguments that Washington should make these decisions for us, now, Minnesota’s mineral rights are finally restored back to the people of our great state,” he said.
Though Emmer, Nolan, and other lawmakers tried a variety of tactics to derail the Obama actions, ultimately, the administration simply moved on its own after letting the process play out for some 15 months.
That the Trump administration — which has frequently overturned actions and regulations from its predecessor — announced the end of the Superior Forest mining study was not surprising to pro-environment activists who have spent the last year and a half defending the process the Obama administration put in place.
Rep. Betty McCollum, the 4th District Democrat who is the Minnesota delegation’s most vocal opponent of mining near the BWCA, brought up President Trump’s visit to Duluth, which included a well-received but somewhat murky endorsement for copper-nickel mining in the area.
“This decision has everything to do with politics and corporate profits,” she said in a statement to MinnPost. “This White House has no problem playing politics or padding the pockets of a foreign mining conglomerate. Protecting Minnesota’s iconic wilderness area is the furthest thing from their minds.”
According to Chris Rackens, who lobbies the federal government for the Wilderness Society, a conservation group, “it wasn’t a surprise that they would go ahead and make the decision, but it did take us back a bit.”
“Our expectation was, they would have gone ahead and considered public comment and made more of a case to make this decision rather than, in our view, going around the public process and making what seems to be a political decision, less a decision based on science and what had been established,” he said. (The federal government held several public forums on the Obama moves, and received some 180,000 comments from the public on the review, the majority of which were against copper-nickel mining.)
The fact that the decision wasn’t a surprise, however, did not make the news easier to process for conservationists in the region. Becky Rom, a longtime activist with the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, compared the Trump administration’s move to a “shockwave” hitting the region.
“It’s not great for this community in terms of moving forward,” she told MinnPost. “This community is really shaken and in shock. The Arrowhead of Minnesota is really built around the Boundary Waters. People recreate here, visit here, build businesses here all because of the wilderness. Now we have this tremendous uncertainty over the future of the area.”
Environmentalists and their allies have expressed dissatisfaction with the way Trump administration officials have gone about the process. Rom noted that in an appearance before the House Appropriations Committee last year, Perdue promised to let the review process play out before the agency came to any final decision. That the study was terminated without public dissemination of its findings to date, in the view of environmentalists, constitutes a betrayal of that promise, though the USDA said the study found nothing new.
It’s clear, Rom said, “that the reason why the study wasn’t finished is that it was going to make an exceptional case for the withdrawal in every respect. Otherwise, Secretary Perdue would have allowed it to be completed as promised.” Rackens echoed that point: “I think the claim there was no new information is something we have a lot of concerns about.”
McCollum told MinnPost she plans to request documents from the administration related to its decision to end the study. “Congress explicitly told the Forest Service that we supported completing the withdrawal study, so this administration owes Congress a full justification for why they did not finalize and release the environmental assessment,” she said.
Mining for silver linings
Proponents of mining are anxiously awaiting the moment that the Twin Metals copper-nickel mine can get off the ground. Up North Jobs activist Tyler believes the project, which could sustain 650 jobs over the life of the project according to a Twin Metals estimate, will revitalize a region that has slowly hollowed out.
Tyler said he “can’t overemphasize the importance” of the Trump administration’s action to get the ball rolling. He spoke about the benefit mining would bring to the region’s economy and its declining base of population — benefits, he argued, that are more real and lasting than those that stem from the region’s tourism industry.
“I would use something a friend of mine said,” Tyler said. “Twin Metals may not cure this problem we have up here, but it sure as hell is going to help.”
Conservationists couldn’t disagree more, and they are considering as many options as they can to block or slow copper-nickel mining from moving forward.
One option is to file a lawsuit against the USDA disputing the decision to end the study. There’s a template for that: When the administration renewed Twin Metals’ mineral leases in June, nine businesses that depend on tourism in the Boundary Waters area filed a lawsuit in D.C. federal court challenging the Department of the Interior’s decision.
No one from Save the Boundary Waters or the Wilderness Society vowed a lawsuit against the most recent decision, but Rom and Rackens said that option remains on the table.
“People want decisions to be made based on science, public input,” Rackens said. “If there are further opportunities to challenge recent decisions, that’s something we’ll be looking at in the context of current lawsuits and potential for further litigation.”
McCollum called on Congress to pass a ban on the use of a technique called sulfide ore mining, which would be used to extract copper and nickel in the Boundary Waters watershed. “If Democrats control the House in the next Congress, I will use every mechanism at my disposal to ensure this administration cannot place the profits of polluters above sound science and the conservation of our public lands,” McCollum said.
The fight over mining near the Boundary Waters could shape these midterms in Minnesota: the issue will be front and center, naturally, in the 8th District, where pro-mining Republicans are hoping their stance on copper-nickel mining will help win over the DFL-leaning Iron Range. Mining has also become a feature of the U.S. Senate special election contest between Sen. Tina Smith and state Sen. Karin Housley, and it’s even a talking point for GOP Rep. Erik Paulsen, whose support for the Obama actions could be a boost in his tough re-election fight in the suburban 3rd District.
Rackens says that people are paying attention to the mining issue — both in Minnesota and around the country — and that the Trump administration’s September move has only sparked more interest.
“I would not say me or any of my colleagues is happy with this decision,” he said. “But I think one silver lining is it’ll put it at the front of people’s minds, and it’s going to get a lot more attention.”