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Twin Metals lease cancellation recalls earlier effort to preserve the BWCA 

Nearly 50 years ago, a victory for environmental advocates roiled Minnesota politics during another midterm election year. 

Canoeists in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in a photo from 1979.
Canoeists in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in a photo from 1979.

Minnesota environmentalists are applauding the Biden administration’s recent action cancelling certain federal leases for the proposed Twin Metals copper nickel mine in Northeastern Minnesota. Twin Metals opponents maintain that the mine will seriously degrade the nearby Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) wilderness. 

But given the vocal support for mining in communities near the BWCA, political fallout from the lease cancellations could impact this year’s midterm elections. That was the case nearly 50 years ago, when an environmental victory for Boundary Waters advocates roiled Minnesota politics during another midterm election year. 

In 1978, Congress adopted landmark legislation strengthening wilderness protection for the million-acre BWCA. In the U.S. House, the wilderness legislation was sponsored by Minnesota’s 5th District Rep. Don Fraser, an avid environmentalist. In 1976, Fraser had signed on as chief author of the BWCA bill drafted by several environmental groups, including the Friends of the Boundary Waters and Sierra Club. The legislation was opposed by the Boundary Waters Conservation Alliance, a coalition that brought together loggers, resort owners and sportsman who felt threatened by the push for BWCA wilderness protection. Their interests were championed by U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, the powerful congressman representing Minnesota 8th Congressional District, which then, as now, included much of northern Minnesota. 

In 1978,  Fraser re-introduced his BWCA bill but now his legislative responsibilities had become intertwined with his political ambitions. That year the Minneapolis congressman decided to run for the U.S. Senate seat held by the late Hubert Humphrey who had died in office. Fraser and his  supporters had expected to face opposition from Oberstar and the Conservation Alliance. But they were not prepared for the depth of animosity they faced from long-time DFLers throughout the 8th District. 

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That animosity was clearly expressed by a northeast Minnesota couple who had sent back to the Fraser office a fund-raising letter they had received from Humphrey’s widow, Muriel, on behalf the Fifth District congressman. The couple wrote that they would have gladly contributed if the fund request had been for Hubert Humphrey but they would not contribute to Fraser “after what he had done to Northern Minnesota.”

They went on to claim that the Minneapolis congressman was interested only in helping “those so-called conservationists, whose only goal is to secure a playground for the rich and abled bodied and to hell with the rest of us. Why don’t you people clean up Minneapolis and St. Paul?  Why are you making Northern Minnesota a target for destruction?”

An editorial cartoon featuring then-Rep. Don Fraser
Donald Fraser archives at the Minnesota Historical Society
An editorial cartoon featuring then-Rep. Don Fraser
By now, Fraser had an opponent for the DFL senate endorsement, a hard charging Minneapolis businessman with a conservative bent named Bob Short. Fraser’s challenger was quick to capitalize on Fraser’s unpopularity in Oberstar’s 8th district, which included the Iron Range, then a bastion of DFL support. Short’s opposition to Fraser’s BWCA bill helped him win support from traditional DFLers who resented Fraser’s intrusion into their home district.

In the weeks leading up to the September primary, Short continued to pound away at Fraser for his BWCA advocacy along with his support for gun control and abortion rights, two issues not favored by many conservative leaning DFLers around the state.  

In that summer’s political polls, Fraser had maintained a steady lead over Short, but that lead had continued to diminish as the election grew closer. On election night, Sept. 12, the early returns showed Fraser ahead. Just after midnight, the St. Paul Pioneer Press declared him the winner of the DFL senate primary. But the St. Paul paper had jumped the gun. The returns from Northern Minnesota had not yet come in. When they did, they brought an avalanche of votes for Bob Short. After all the votes had been counted later that morning Short had eked out a narrow win over the Fraser.

The November general election brought political disaster for the DFL. The party’s statewide ticket was soundly defeated by a resurgent Republican party in what came to be known as the Minnesota Massacre.

Now, in 2022,  a statewide DFL ticket led by Gov. Tim Walz is facing political headwinds stirred up – at least in part – by the Twin Metals controversy. Despite the headwinds, Minnesota DFLers are determined to avoid another Minnesota Massacre this year.