In “Our mining exploration rights must be restored” (Aug. 2), U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer advocates for ending the ongoing federal process for withdrawing public lands surrounding the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness from the federal mining program and immediately granting two copper-mining leases less than a mile from the wilderness.
What he doesn’t say is that before any withdrawal takes place, a comprehensive study would measure the impact of proposed copper mining in the Boundary Waters watershed. The study is designed to help federal officials decide what use for these public lands will provide the most long-term value. If the study finds that the risks of copper mining in the Boundary Waters watershed outweigh the benefits, the secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior can put the area off-limits to mining for 20 years.
Emmer and the mining companies cheering him on want to kill this critical study because they’re afraid it will confirm what the vast majority of Minnesotans already know: Copper mining near the Boundary Waters is a terrible idea.
Rather than face this troublesome outcome, Emmer has proposed a reckless measure that would undercut the long-standing, bipartisan laws underpinning federal management of America’s public lands, which ensure that the people, not the mining industry, come first. Emmer’s proposal would clear the way for a foreign mining company with a long history of pollution to open an industrial mine at the doorstep of the wilderness.
I served as press secretary for the Interior Department in 2011-2012. During my tenure, I got to know the laws that guide federal agencies in making thoughtful decisions about what public lands are used for what purposes. Some lands’ highest value is for mining and energy extraction, others for logging or grazing. And some special places perform best when left untouched, kept wild for recreation and tourism.
Federal officials conduct comprehensive studies with the goal of creating maximum overall value from our public lands — not just for current citizens, but for future generations as well.
At Interior, I also gained a sharp nose for attempts to subvert those laws. Emmer’s bill, which comes straight from the anti-public-lands playbook championed by some of the most extreme members of Congress — would annihilate them. And who benefits? The careful process of public-lands stewardship isn’t designed to boost profits for industry. So companies like Antofagasta, the Chilean conglomerate that will directly benefit from Emmer’s proposal, lobby aggressively to get around it.
Case in point: The study Emmer seeks to end is supported by 79 percent of Minnesotans, but fiercely opposed by the mining industry. Emmer is fully on board with Antofagasta’s chief objective — mining at all costs.
To be clear, the costs could be enormous. Science shows clearly that copper mining in the Boundary Waters watershed is highly likely to produce pollution that would flow directly into the wilderness’ pristine waters. A recent economic study concludes that copper mining would undermine some of the most robust sectors of northeastern Minnesota’s economy — risking up to 22,000 jobs, $1.6 billion in annual income and $480 million in property value — in exchange for a small number of jobs in the boom-and-bust mining industry.
But don’t take my word for it. The study Emmer’s bill seeks to kill is looking at scientific evidence, economic considerations, ecological characteristics and recreation value. It gives the people a voice. Yes, it’s complicated. But when it comes to public lands, it’s always complicated. That’s the nature of co-ownership with hundreds of millions of fellow Americans.
It’s this same study that led then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to make one of the biggest announcements of his tenure. Salazar declared that, after a long and thorough review, he would protect the Grand Canyon from uranium-mining proposals threatening to pollute one of America’s most popular national parks.
The Boundary Waters is a national treasure and it deserves the same consideration.
All my life, I’ve known Minnesotans to play the long game when making hard decisions. We don’t throw away our most precious resources for fleeting benefits. But Emmer’s bill would do just that — denying public input on how best to use our commonly held lands, obstructing science and undermining our solemn system of federal lands stewardship.
Mining is an important Minnesota tradition. But we need to draw a line at the watershed of the Boundary Waters, where mining would directly threaten our most precious natural resource. Lawmakers should reject Emmer’s dangerous bill, support the ongoing federal study and look for mining opportunities elsewhere.
Adam Fetcher is a consultant based in Minneapolis. He was press secretary for the U.S. Department of the Interior during the Obama administration and was deputy national press secretary for President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign.