Minnesotans know that the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness — the massive refuge that is the heart of our great North Woods — needs and deserves protection.
Our laws reflect a deep commitment to the canoe country wilderness. Since 1902, Minnesotans have worked to preserve these lands and waters. For more than 50 years the Boundary Waters has been a national Wilderness Area — the most visited one in America every year since the National Wilderness Preservation System was established in 1964.
Our Boundary Waters laws prohibit any water pollution and air pollution, and regulate against noise, motors, air traffic, roads, bottles and cans, and logging and mining.
But these laws won’t prevent massive harm to the Boundary Waters if sulfide-ore copper mining is permitted on nearby lands along rivers and lakes that flow into the wilderness. A direct and certain consequence of such mining would be water and air pollution; destruction of the forest and wetland habitat of fish, mammals and birds; noise and light pollution; and an array of other industrial impacts that would invade and irreparably damage the Boundary Waters.
The Trump administration recently renewed two mineral leases on the edge of the Boundary Waters for Chilean giant Antofagasta, a mining company with a history of corruption and environmental degradation. These leases were previously canceled in 2016 after the U.S. Forest Service determined copper mining to be an unacceptable risk to the Boundary Waters.
The renewal of these leases is the culmination of a two-year lobbying effort that began with the purchase of a D.C. mansion by Antofagasta’s owner, who then rented it to Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner.
The lease renewal for Antofagasta’s Twin Metals project may be a point of no return for Boundary Waters protection unless Congress and Gov. Tim Walz move swiftly to stop copper mining in the Boundary Waters watershed.
Since taking office the Trump administration has rushed to overturn Boundary Waters protections. It resurrected dead leases using phony legal reasoning; canceled studies and hid data on the inevitable impact of copper mining on the Boundary Waters and nearby lands; and ignored over 180,000 public comments urging protection for this unique and irreplaceable wilderness.
Recently, the U.S. House began action to protect the Boundary Waters by ordering both the completion of a Trump-canceled study on the dangers of copper mining next to the wilderness and a response to concerns by the government of Canada about the water pollution impacts of a copper mine on Canada’s Quetico Park. If the Trump administration were to proceed in good faith, these studies would validate what Minnesotans know — permitting sulfide-ore copper mining in the watershed of the Boundary Waters would be disastrously wrong.
The refrain heard from Antofagasta is that Twin Metals should be allowed to go through Minnesota’s permitting process and show it can meet “state standards.” You never hear Antofagasta say it won’t harm the Boundary Waters.
The fact is that Minnesota’s state standards are not sufficient to protect the Boundary Waters. Minnesota’s rules allow water and air pollution, light and noise pollution and the destruction of forests and wetlands. Minnesota’s rules were developed for mines that are located in industrial mining districts, where society has accepted environmental degradation as a consequence of heavy industrial activity and the choice has been made to try to limit but not to prohibit pollution.
Minnesota has no special rules for a mine that would be located adjacent to the priceless Boundary Waters Wilderness. The air and water pollution and spillover effects from habitat destruction won’t stop at the wilderness boundary. A mine in the location proposed by Twin Metals would be a knife in the heart of America’s commitment to preserve the Boundary Waters.
It would also severely damage our communities. An independent study by a Harvard economist examined the regional economy over a 20-year period and documented that the region would have far more jobs and income without a Twin Metals mine than with one. A survey shows that a quarter of the residents say they will leave the area if mining were developed.
For over 100 years the Boundary Waters has been protected by the resolute conviction of Republican and Democratic statesmen and women who pledged that they would pass our irreplaceable outdoor heritage on to the next generation. Let’s not be the ones to give away the Boundary Waters.
Tom Landwehr is executive director of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters and former commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.