‘The Boundary Waters is a national treasure, special to the 150,000 people who canoe, fish and recreate there each year, and is the economic lifeblood to local business that depend on a pristine natural resource. I have asked [the Department of the Interior] to take a time-out, conduct a careful environmental analysis and engage the public on whether future mining should be authorized on any federal land next door to the Boundary Waters.”
In this way did Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who oversees the Forest Service, explain his decisions to reject a request by a South American mining conglomerate for leases to mine copper and other metals on land next to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and to request a two-year environmental study to consider if federal lands in the watershed of the Boundary Waters should be off limits for sulfide-ore copper mining.
Vilsack’s decisions, joined by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, are the result of a three-year review of requests to mine public minerals — copper and other metals embedded in sulfide-bearing ore — on lands adjacent to the Boundary Waters and along rivers and lakes that flow directly into the wilderness. The review included numerous meetings and listening sessions with all stakeholders; review of the body of scientific evidence; consideration of the laws that protect national lands, waters and the Boundary Waters, and public input.
The inescapable conclusion of the review is this: Sulfide-ore mining in the watershed presents a high risk of major, permanent damage to the Boundary Waters.
In rejecting the well-founded decisions of the secretaries of Agriculture and Interior, the Star Tribune Editorial Board called instead for issuance of federal mining leases — even after acknowledging the industry’s history of destruction (“A victory for BWCA that could backfire,” Dec. 18). Issuance of leases to mine would be contrary to legal mandates to protect the Boundary Waters and — importantly — would deprive all Americans of the opportunity to have any input into whether we allow this type of risk at all near the Boundary Waters.
The overwhelming majority of Americans who participated in the review process urged denial of federal mining leases and withdrawal of sensitive lands near the Boundary Waters from the federal mining program. This also reflects the desires of Minnesotans — 78 percent of whom support the two-year pause-and-study proposal, including a majority of Republicans, Democrats and independents. Minnesotans do not view the Boundary Waters as a partisan or a political issue.
The laws that govern our nation’s minerals provide for exactly this approach, a science-based process to determine if sulfide-ore mining should be prohibited to protect America’s most spectacular public lands. This process has protected special places in similar circumstances, including Yellowstone National Park, Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front, Grand Canyon National Park, and Wild and Scenic Rivers in Oregon.
The decisions by the secretaries are consistent with more than a century of action to protect the Boundary Waters. Five federal laws, three Minnesota state laws, one Minnesota administrative action and two presidential declarations all sought to protect the Boundary Waters from harmful development — including, in many instances, from mining.
The Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters is led by regular Minnesotans — outfitters, Main Street business owners, hunters and anglers, paddlers — who coalesced into a campaign to protect the Boundary Waters from sulfide-ore mining and its inevitable consequences. Minnesotans want good government decisions that protect the places that define this state and its people. Good government decisions stand the test of time, from administration to administration, whether headed by Republicans or Democrats.
The denial of the mining leases, coupled with a rigorous two-year scientific study of the wilderness watershed, is a huge step in the right direction.
Steve Piragis is owner of Ely, Minn.-based Piragis Northwoods Co. Becky Rom, of Ely, is the national chair of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters. Dave Zentner, of Duluth, is past national president of the Izaak Walton League of America.