Protecting the Boundary Waters: next steps

February 15, 2023 6:00 am

Ensign Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Photo by Zach Spindler-Krage.

In June 2022, I sat in the Department of Agriculture and told a story to Dr. Homer Wilkes, the under secretary for natural resources and environment. With a map of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness spread across the table, I pointed to Sawbill Lake.

“Last year, my grandpa took me on a four-day canoe trip starting from Sawbill Lake,” I explained to Dr. Wilkes, tracing my finger along the route. “Thirty years ago, he did this exact same trip with his dad.”

It’s a story my grandpa tells often. He recalls much of it vividly: Portaging all of his dad’s gear; escaping a bear that tore into their cooler; wrangling a huge pike — the exact size is still debated — that nearly capsized their canoe. Decades later, he could still point out where each memory originated as we retraced their 30-year-old footprints.

After I recounted the memories of the trip to Wilkes, I shared one of my biggest hopes. “Fifty years from now, I hope that I’ll have the opportunity to bring my own grandkids to Sawbill and pass down four generations of BWCA stories.”

That dream is one step closer to becoming reality.

On Jan. 26, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland signed Public Land Order 7917, effectively banning — for now — sulfide-ore copper mining on 225,504 acres in the watershed of the BWCA. The decision was recommended by the Forest Service upon the conclusion of their scientific and economic analyses in Dec. 2022. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack immediately commended the decisive action. In short, this federal step ensures the protection of the established acreage for the next 20 years.

However, the BWCA is not a 20-year wilderness. It is a forever wilderness.

Yes, we should all take a breath, celebrate this success, and plan our BWCA trips (it’s fitting that the announcement came the day after permits opened), but we should also recognize this moment for what it is: an opportunity to capitalize on a growing wave of momentum.

Interior did its part by using the full breadth of its power — 20 years is the longest moratorium it can authorize, subject to renewal. The argument was clear, the reasoning was supported by evidence, and the decision reflected public opinion.

The other institution that is intended to reflect research consensus and public opinion? Congress. It also represents the only path to permanent protection.

There is no doubt that passing environmental legislation through the Republican-controlled House will be difficult, but the possibility increases as misinformation is combatted. If enough people recognize the abundance of alternative options for accessing copper, constituents can generate enough pressure to ensure the passage of U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum’s bill and state Sen. Kelly Morrison’s state Senate bill. Both pieces of legislation would offer permanent protection of certain regions of the Superior National Forest without impeding any other Minnesota mining operations.

Rep. Pete Stauber, a Republican who represents northeast Minnesota, responded to the 20-year mining ban by referring to it as “an attack on our way of life.” He argues that we must put the BWCA at risk in order to collect minerals for the electrification transition.  

The facts speak for themselves, however. Twin Metals’ proposed mine would produce only 2.3% of the United States’ annual copper consumption — an amount that would only become more insignificant as the demand for copper increases. Environmental damage aside, opening an abundance of small, short-term mines is not a cost-effective solution to the inflating demand for copper. Furthermore, the U.S. doesn’t have the infrastructure to smelt copper domestically. Instead, minerals need to be sold to adversaries, often China, and repurchased on the global market, causing tension, uncertainty, and enormous shipping emissions.

To prioritize clean energy, the U.S. must find reliable, long-term alternatives. Fortunately, the U.S. is trade partners with Canada and Australia, two of the top copper-producing countries in the world, and their copper flow has been consistent and secure. Moreover, many of the current reports of an impending copper crisis are misleading. Since 1960, the U.S. has retained an average copper reserve equivalent to thirty-eight years of consumption. When the time comes to stimulate production, the copper necessary for the renewable energy transition will come from recycling, not mining.

There is no denying that the discussion of mining produces a seemingly impossible moral dilemma: If not here, then where?

There is no perfect answer. Sulfide-ore copper mining is essential, and no matter where it takes place, it will cause damage. Yet, it is disingenuous to justify avoidable damage by claiming inevitability. Some damage is inevitable, but destroying an entire ecosystem is not. If damage cannot be entirely avoided, then the next best thing is to minimize and contain it. The simple truth is that the BWCA — with its improbably connected lakes, 1.1 million acres, 150,000 annual visitors, and $540 million economy — is one of the worst places to implement a mining technique that has a history of water pollution. To be good stewards of the land, these practices must be done only in arid locations that minimize pollution, ideally at sites where a current mine can be expanded.

There will always be conflicting viewpoints to balance in this debate, but there will never be another wilderness like the BWCA.

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Zach Spindler-Krage
Zach Spindler-Krage

Zach Spindler-Krage is a Minnesotan currently studying political science, history and policy studies at Grinnell College in Iowa. He is a political and environmental activist, having spent time at the state Capitol and in D.C. fighting for Minnesota causes. His previous work can be found in MinnPost and the Post Bulletin.