We won a major Boundary Waters battle — now let’s win the war | Opinion

February 15, 2022 6:00 am

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

Stretching for 150 miles along the international border, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota and Quetico Provincial Park in Ontario form the greatest canoe country wilderness on the planet. On January 26 the Biden administration canceled the only two federal mineral leases in the Minnesota headwaters of this vast watery landscape, after determining that the leases had been unlawfully renewed for the benefit of Chilean mining company Antofagasta/Twin Metals.

This is a major victory for the rule of law and for the cause of permanent protection for this wildlife-rich paradise of lakes, rivers, streams, wetlands, and boreal forests.

This win for the millions of Americans who love the Boundary Waters was long in coming. My late father, Bill Rom, owned a canoe trip outfitting business in Ely, Minnesota for 30 years. In 1975, the last year he operated the business before selling it, he sent his annual Canoe Country Outfitters newsletter to customers and friends. He wrote this entry on the first page: “EMBATTLED WILDERNESS – Copper-nickel vein is discovered to run through Boundary Waters Canoe Area, and International Nickel Co. proposes huge [mine]… operation just outside BWCA near Gabbro Lake and the South Kawishiwi River. Fear is that toxic wastes may perpetually seep into BWCA waters, killing aquatic life, pollute the air, movement will be into the BWCA to mine when outside ore is exhausted (20 to 30 years).”

International Nickel Co. was the initial owner of the two leases canceled last week. The work to achieve cancellation of those leases to protect the Boundary Waters from toxic sulfide-ore mining has been a project for members of my family for 47 years. 

By reversing the indefensible renewal of the leases, the Biden administration removed an impediment to a major initiative underway to protect the Boundary Waters from sulfide-ore copper mining in the Rainy River watershed, upstream from the heart of the Boundary Waters. 

In October 2021, the U.S. Forest Service exercised its right under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act to request that 225,378 acres of federal mineral rights on Superior National Forest lands in the Rainy River watershed be withdrawn from the federal mineral leasing program.

In its withdrawal application to the Department of the Interior, the Forest Service stated that, among other things, “the Rainy River watershed . . . supports outdoor recreation, wilderness, and biota critical to the socioeconomic conditions” in northeastern Minnesota and that the Boundary Waters “is a complex and interconnected system” offering opportunities “such that it is considered an irreplaceable national treasure.” 

The centerpiece of the mineral withdrawal process is a science-driven environmental analysis of potential impacts of mining on important natural and cultural resources of the Rainy River watershed, including the Boundary Waters: water quality, fish and wildlife, Tribal trust and treaty rights, and the local recreation and amenity-based economy, among other things. The result of this analysis will inform the secretary of the Interior’s decision as to whether to grant the withdrawal request.

Given indisputable facts about the value and vulnerability of the forests, waters, and wildlife of the Boundary Waters, and in view of the sustainable outdoor-based economy of the area, the secretary is likely to grant the withdrawal request. 

As a result of the Biden administration’s actions, science-driven analysis — not mining industry money and clout — will be the crucial factor in determining the future of the Boundary Waters, at least in the near-term. 

Administrative mineral withdrawals cannot, by law, last longer than twenty years.  Fortunately, legislation has been introduced in Congress and the Minnesota Legislature to permanently ban sulfide-ore copper mining within the watershed of the Boundary Waters. 

A lawsuit challenging the adequacy of Minnesota’s non-ferrous mining rules to protect the Boundary Waters has also led to a Department of Natural Resources review of whether those rules should be amended. 

The Boundary Waters is the most-accessible, most-visited wilderness area in the United States. It is the touchstone of wild America for millions of people.  Let us heed Bill Rom’s warning from 47 years ago. We must permanently protect this unique ecosystem from the massive, irreversible harm that would result if sulfide-ore mining were permitted in its watershed.

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Becky Rom
Becky Rom

Becky Rom, an Ely resident, is the national chair of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters.