A fundamental question with respect to the future of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness looms before Minnesota’s citizens and elected officials: Will officials in Washington follow the law?
Under the most basic principles of democracy and constitutional governance the answer can only be “yes.” Whether that will be the answer with respect to the Boundary Waters — the most visited and accessible wilderness area in the United States — remains to be seen.
Gov. Tim Walz must be prepared to act if federal officials continue down their current unlawful path to enabling sulfide-ore copper mining on the edge of the Boundary Waters.
Federal law should ultimately determine the fate of the Boundary Waters, because this magnificent lake-land wilderness and its watershed in the Superior National Forest are federal lands that belong to all Americans. The copper-bearing sulfide ore that Chilean mining company Antofagasta/Twin Metals seeks is also publicly owned. The pollution that would flow from the proposed mine and from its waste tailings would contaminate waters that flow into the heart of the Boundary Waters.
When the U.S. Forest Service, which administers the Boundary Waters and much of its watershed, requested in 2016 that the watershed be withdrawn from the federal mineral leasing program, it triggered a vitally important environmental review. The Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) unequivocally authorizes protection of public lands that are determined to be too valuable or vulnerable for mining.
Under FLPMA, such a determination is to be based on an extensive and comprehensive review of the environmental, economic and social impacts of allowing mining in areas as fragile as the Boundary Waters watershed and, conversely, of the impacts of a mining ban. The point is to engender decisions based on facts and science — not politics.
Such a review was commenced in early 2017 by the Forest Service but halted by the Trump administration after 20 months. This cynical cessation of the review relegated to the trash bin not only exhaustive studies of environmental, economic and social impacts but also extensive public comments that overwhelmingly supported protecting the Boundary Waters watershed. Concurrently with halting environmental review, the administration unlawfully reinstated mining leases to Antofagasta/Twin Metals that had been terminated in 2016 because of the threat to the Boundary Waters.
Supporters of copper mining clamor that “the process” should be followed with respect to proposals for such mining near the Boundary Waters, but then applaud the Trump administration’s actions that short-circuit established federal law. Those arguing for “process” mean that they want to ignore FLPMA and have only the Minnesota permitting process, which is a comparatively narrow review and designed to result in the issuance of permits for mines, govern the mining proposals.
The question that the aborted federal review was asking was, “Should copper mining be banned near the Boundary Waters?” The Trump administration halted the study because the answer quite clearly was going to be “yes.” If the state initiates a review of a mine plan it is compelled to use lesser standards than those required under federal law — standards that would allow for water and air pollution that would degrade the wilderness.
A review under state law would ignore critical information about economics, human health, and cultural and social impacts, among other things.
Walz can be a bulwark against the Trump administration’s misguided and unlawful drive to allow a Chilean mining company to despoil lands and waters that belong to the people of the United States. He can direct state agencies to refuse to process any permit applications submitted by Antofagasta/Twin Metals until lawsuits and the canceled environmental study have been completed.
Several businesses that would be harmed by the mine have sued in federal court challenging the illegal issuance of the leases. Legislation brought forward by U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum and others, which passed in the U.S. House, would compel the Trump administration to finish the canceled study and hand it over to Congress. Bipartisan leaders in the U.S. Senate, including Tina Smith and Amy Klobuchar, have urged the adoption of the House provision by Congress to ensure compliance with existing law.
The history and current reality of proposals to mine copper in Minnesota has a surfeit of political calculation but too little consideration of the broader public interest. Continuing down that road will likely result in devastating harm to our priceless and irreplaceable BWCA.
The governor can thwart that outcome by ordering that Minnesota will not consider permits for an Antofagasta/Twin Metals mine when the company’s access to America’s public lands and minerals has been obtained by unlawful means. In that way he can assure that the future of the BWCA is determined by the rule of law.
Richard Moe, a native of northern Minnesota, is former president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and a board member of the Conservation Lands Foundation. He served as chief of staff to Vice President Walter Mondale and as a senior adviser to President Jimmy Carter. He was chairman of the Minnesota DFL Party from 1969 to 1972.