Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Why presidential candidates are talking about the Boundary Waters

It’s no coincidence that three Democratic candidates have come out with positions on this very Minnesota-centric issue.

MinnPost photo by Greta Kaul
Mining near the Boundary Waters might seem like something for the Minnesota governor, state agencies and the Legislature to deal with.
Elizabeth Warren. Pete Buttigieg. Tom Steyer. Different in ideology, background, and approach to politics, all three presidential candidates have something in common: They support a moratorium on mining near Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, one of the most visited wildernesses in the United States.

Just before a visit to Minneapolis in August, Warren said she would “stop all mining on federal public lands, including the Minnesota Boundary Waters.”

After Warren, other candidates followed suit. “These resources belong to all Americans, yet the current administration is trying to open up many such areas to potentially harmful projects. My administration will reverse that and preserve these lands for future generations,” Buttigieg said in a statement last month.

And Steyer’s campaign told MinnPost earlier this month: “Tom opposes mining in Minnesota Boundary Waters. He wants to protect our public lands from the corporate greed that has endangered fish and wildlife, local economies, and water supplies; and deprived U.S. taxpayers of fair royalty payments.”

Article continues after advertisement

Mining near the Boundary Waters might seem like something for the Minnesota governor, state agencies and the Legislature to deal with. That it’s showing up as an issue in the Democratic presidential nomination contest likely has to do with the lobbying efforts of the Boundary Waters Action Fund. The Action Fund, the political arm of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, has shifted from just targeting Minnesota politicians to setting up shop in Iowa to talk to presidential candidates about the Boundary Waters.

“This is probably the biggest public lands issue in the Midwest,” said Jeremy Drucker, the spokesperson for the Action Fund and Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters. “And making that campaigns and their candidates understand is a key part of our effort.”

‘Sir, you saved our way of life’

Sulfide-ore copper mining, the process of extracting metals from sulfide-ore, has never been tried in Minnesota. Extracting sulfide ore is risky in that, when its exposed to air and water, it creates sulfuric acid that can leach into nearby water. But Twin Metals, a subsidiary of Chilean mining conglomerate Antofagasta, aims to try it (PolyMet, a similar Minnesota project not in the BWCA watershed, is closer to completion). The project proposed by the company would be an underground copper, nickel, platinum group metals and cobalt mine in Birch Lake, just outside of the BWCA. The company holds a number of mineral leases from the federal government that give it the right to develop its mine.

The Bureau of Land Management, part of the U.S. Department of the Interior, decides whether or not mineral leases are renewed. In December 2016, the Obama administration did not renew the Twin Metals mineral leases. The administration contended that the type of proposed mining, sulfide-ore copper mining, may pose significant environmental risks. The administration also committed to studying the issue better, issuing a two-year study that could result in a 20 year moratorium on mining in the region, if it was found to be too risky.

But the Trump administration reversed course, renewing the leases and canceling the study investigating the potential harm of copper-nickel mining in the region. The renewed lease was granted in May and the president has not been shy about taking credit for these changes.

“I’ll never forget, a man came up to me and said, ‘Sir, you saved our way of life.’ And it just — I still remember it like — like today, said, ‘You saved our way of life, by opening up the Iron Range,’” Trump said earlier this month in Minnesota. “So, now they’re doing fantastically, and I’m very proud of it.”

Twin Metals intends to submit a mine plan to state and Federal regulators this year, but the mine is not completed or open yet. The Boundary Waters Action Fund intends to keep it that way.

Going to Iowa

In August, Boundary Waters Action came to Iowa. The group decided it would be best to allocate resources in the state where all Democratic presidential candidates converge.

Drucker said the reason for this is two-fold, not only is Iowa the first state, but the Boundary Waters is “the wilderness of the Midwest.”

“If you go up there, you see license plates from all over America, but you will see a lot of license plates from Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan.”

To get in front of candidates, Boundary Waters Action hired an Iowa Campaign Director: Michelle Bruggenthies, formerly a staffer for John Delaney’s Presidential campaign and Sen. Bernie Sanders 2016 campaign.

When asking candidates their stance on the BWCA, her goal is straightforward: “Identify who all the campaigns are, who has staff on the ground, who actually has infrastructure in place and then meet with them,” she said.

Article continues after advertisement

Bruggenthies said it’s difficult to get what is ostensibly a state issue on candidate’s radar.  “I mean obviously, you know, a Minnesota issue sometimes falls to the back burner, because other things come up. I just keep showing up in front of them, keep saying, ‘Hey, I’m still here.’”

But that persistence has paid off. Her campaign has resulted in notable successes, like Warren’s video endorsement. 

Drucker and Bruggenthies both said if there is one candidate who stands out in her support of the Boundary Waters, it’s been Warren. While Warren gave her statement in August, in June, Warren met with a member of Kids for the Boundary Waters, another group that brings kids to Washington in support of the BWCA. Warren pinky promised to support the Boundary Waters. In August, she followed through.

Another issue Bruggenthies has faced is candidates’ unfamiliarity with the specifics of the issue. Considering Twin Metals is just outside the Boundary Waters, campaigns often say they would ban mining within the Boundary Waters — which is already banned federally.

“We go back and we talked to the campaigns that have said “In the Boundary Waters” and explain the watershed and explain what the issue at stake is,” Drucker said. “Most of them just appreciate the note and, and make the change, but it doesn’t change anything. Their support is contingent upon the threat to the wilderness. And the Twin Metals threat, you know, whether it’s right outside the wilderness or in the wilderness, is equally present.”

Labor and the environment

While opposing mining near the Boundary Waters has obvious advantages for a candidate looking to appeal to environment-focused Democratic votes, it also risks alienating labor and pro-mining Democrats as well, a vocal constituency in Northern Minnesota.

Twin Metals has promised about 700 direct jobs and another 1,400 related jobs from its mine. In a region where mining jobs are on the decline, that could be a boon for the local economy, advocates for the Twin Metals mine say.

“Why would you want to be against something that will create so many jobs, and living [wage] jobs, within an area that desperately needs it?” Mike Syversrud, president of the Iron Range Building and Construction Trades Council, told MinnPost in August. 

Article continues after advertisement

The opposition from labor and Iron Range Democrats may be why Sen. Amy Klobuchar, now running for president, still does not have an explicit stance on Twin Metals or copper-nickel mining near the Boundary Waters. Recently, her campaign told the Star Tribune that Klobuchar “continues to have serious concerns about this project being so close to the Boundary Waters.”

But the promise of jobs does not satisfy critics who are worried about environmental concerns, like the folks at BWCA Action. The swift deviation from the Obama administration’s actions under Trump has prompted them to take a closer look at how these issues could be dealt with under a new administration.

Drucker said that ultimately, the issue could very well come down to who is in the White House next. And that means BWCA Action will continue to devote significant time and resources to places like Iowa, to ensure that candidates understand the issue before they challenge Trump in 2020.

“More and more,” he said, “it became clear that this issue of if we were gonna be able to be successful in protecting the Boundary Waters… We were gonna need to have a pro-Boundary Waters president in 2021.”