A great northern forest in Minnesota can help our world remain livable — Opinion

Photo by Dave Freeman, courtesy of Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters.

If our society is to have the resilience necessary to ward off the worst effects of climate change, and if we are to save a reasonably representative population of the wildlife that shares the Earth with us, we must protect our remaining healthy, diverse ecosystems. 

The administration of President Joe Biden understands this. Biden’s executive order on tackling the climate crisis establishes a goal of conserving at least 30% of the nation’s lands and waters by 2030, a plan since named “America the Beautiful.” Section 201 of the executive order states the policy of the administration is “to organize and deploy the full capacity of its agencies” to take action that — among other things — “increases resilience to the impacts of climate change” and “conserves our lands, waters, and biodiversity…”  

The watershed of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (Rainy River Headwaters) in the Superior National Forest in Minnesota is a critically important place to apply this policy. This is an extraordinary landscape of healthy forests and clean lakes, streams and wetlands. The Rainy River Headwaters includes most of the 1.1-million acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and extensive National Forest lands outside the Wilderness. The dense stands of eastern white pine, red pine, jack pine, white spruce, quaking aspen and paper birch capture and retain enormous quantities of atmospheric carbon. The land and water are home to a marvelous array of wild creatures — wolves, lynx, moose, whitetail deer, bald eagles, ospreys, loons, ducks, myriad songbird species, lake trout, bass, pike, frogs, turtles, and many, many others.  

Crucially, the Rainy River Headwaters is not an isolated island of habitat. Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park — similar in size to the Boundary Waters — is adjacent at the border, and the 220,000-acre Voyageurs National Park is just to the west in Minnesota. Altogether, the Rainy River Headwaters and the rest of the Quetico-Superior Ecosystem cover about 4.3 million acres. Analysis by two major national conservation organizations, The Wilderness Society and The Nature Conservancy, shows that the Quetico-Superior has characteristics — including this connectedness of wild areas, an especially high degree of wildness, and diversity of species and ecosystem types — that make it one of the most important regions in the United States for helping maintain biodiversity in the face of the climate and extinction crisis. 

And that brings us to the main point: The Rainy River Headwaters is the linchpin of the health of the Quetico-Superior. Wetlands and streams originating from precipitation falling there flow into the heart of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, then downstream to Quetico and Voyageurs.  

The last thing that this watershed needs is to be the location of a massive industrial copper mining development, but that is precisely what a mining industry behemoth is proposing. Thousands of acres of processing plants, waste rock piles, tailings piles, roads, railroads, pipelines, power lines, ventilation stacks and other infrastructure would destroy terrestrial and wetland habitat and risk feeding mining pollution directly into waterways flowing into the Wilderness and beyond.  

The administration of former President Donald Trump did everything it could to advance the mine proposal, including ignoring consistent lease interpretation that had been followed by every administration beginning with former President Ronald Reagan. The Trump administration flouted the law and buried scientific studies that show the risk of mining copper in the Rainy River Headwaters.  

Fortunately, Minnesota political leaders recognize that the Rainy River Headwaters is a unique and priceless place, and they have acted accordingly. U.S. Sen. Tina Smith has written to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to ask them to resume a study to determine whether a 20-year administrative moratorium on mining activity should be imposed on federal lands and minerals in the Rainy River Basin, which includes the Headwaters.    

U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum introduced bipartisan legislation in Congress in 2019 and reintroduced it this year on Earth Day to permanently withdraw 234,328 acres of federal land and minerals in the Rainy River Basin from the leasing program.

Permanent protection for the Rainy River Headwaters from the destruction and pollution that would be the inevitable result of copper mining is the vital next task in work that has gone on for more than 100 years to preserve this incomparable region. President Theodore Roosevelt, the great grandfather of one of us, took the first major step to protect northeastern Minnesota when he created the Superior National Forest in 1909.  

In 2016, when the other of us was secretary of Interior, the department cancelled the only two federal mining leases in the Superior National Forest and initiated the process of withdrawing 234,328 acres of land and minerals in the forest from the federal mineral leasing program for 20  years. (The Trump administration reversed both of these actions by Interior.) 

The steps taken in 1909 and 2016, and many others taken to protect the lands and waters — not least of which was the inclusion of the Boundary Waters in the lands originally set aside in the Wilderness Act of 1964 — were the result of valiant, tireless work by citizens who helped leaders understand the value and fragility of Minnesota’s north woods. 

Now the Biden administration and Congress can join the pantheon of this nation’s great conservationists. By prohibiting copper mining in the Rainy River Headwaters and taking an important leap forward in the America the Beautiful plan by conserving this vital ecosystem and all the species it nurtures, our leaders can protect this precious and irreplaceable natural wonder not just for now, but for generations to follow. 

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Sally Jewell
Sally Jewell

Sally Jewell served as secretary of the Department of Interior during the administration of former President Barack Obama. She currently serves on the board of The Nature Conservancy.

Ted Roosevelt IV
Ted Roosevelt IV

Ted Roosevelt IV is the chair of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. He is the great-grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt.