Boundary Waters lovers: An important day of action has arrived. Today is this year’s opening day for permit registration for all entry points along the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. That’s a red-circled calendar alert day for many paddlers. If you have your sights set on a particular entry point or certain days for your trip, you will be grabbing your keyboard or smartphone at 9 a.m. to set your dream trip in motion.
And for those who aren’t eager-beaver wilderness campers, the BWCA opening permit day offers a time of reflection about America’s most-visited wilderness and what we need to do to make certain it remains pristine and unharmed.
Like many Minnesotans, I fell in love with the Boundary Waters the moment I laid eyes on it. It has a special resonance for me, a call to a place that is truly wild, and an untouched beauty that is unspoiled. In 1979, when I was just a newlywed, my wife, Nancy, and I opened Piragis Northwoods Co., home of the Boundary Waters Catalog, in Ely, Minn. We made a commitment to that community to honor those wild shores and the people who loved them. Now, that wilderness is under threat.
The Boundary Waters was one of the very first areas set aside for protection under the Wilderness Protection Act in 1964. As America’s most-accessible wilderness, early on it was recognized as a national treasure.
More than 1 million acres of wilderness were set aside to serve as an inspiration and a permanent legacy for future generations. The Boundary Waters, along with the Superior National Forest, contains 20 percent of all fresh water in the entire national forest system.
Not only has the Boundary Waters continued to serve as awe-inspiring terrain for our nation’s citizens, it also has been a large economic driver for the tourism economy of northeastern Minnesota, one that generates $800 million in revenue and supports more than 18,000 local jobs annually.
Unfortunately, not everyone understands the Boundary Waters’ worth. Proposed sulfide-ore copper mines threaten to destroy its very essence. Despite the fact that the mines would be just outside the protected area, they would be upstream of the Boundary Waters, and any contamination would flow downstream directly into the heart of the wilderness.
Contamination would be permanent. Once polluted, the Boundary Waters would not be repairable. It would be forever destroyed, available to future generations only in pictures and memories. This would be like setting fire to the Mona Lisa: There’s no getting it back once it’s gone — and there are no copies of the Boundary Waters.
We are businesspeople, and we understand the attraction of the promised mining jobs for our northern Minnesota economy. But sulfide-ore copper mining is completely new to our water-rich ecosystem here. The millions of tons of waste rock that would be left behind near the mine site would be a toxic ticking time bomb. Over time, even low-density sulfide rock will leach sulfuric acid and heavy metals, especially in a wet climate like ours. This is the perennial problem of copper mines around the world, even in places like Arizona — and Ely gets 10 times as much precipitation.
The tailings basin, wherever it is located, is another source of eventual contamination. Basins have been known to fail, catastrophically flooding rivers with toxic sludge, as we saw last summer in British Columbia at the Mount Polley mine site.
Our business has grown along with our love of wilderness, and our commitment to Ely is based on true optimism for the future. Only false optimism can hope, against all odds, that any sulfide-ore copper mine in our ecosystem can forever remain innocuous to the watershed around it. The ecological safety record of acid-producing mines is atrocious. If these mines are built where proposed, no contamination to the Boundary Waters over time is impossible, based on the record of these types of mines around the world.
Contamination would irrevocably alter the Boundary Waters. Entire ecosystems would be destroyed as the acidity in lakes and rivers rose. Minnows would die first, followed by walleye, northerns, smallmouth bass, trout and loons. Interconnected forests, which rely on the groundwater, streams and wetlands, would suffer, too, resulting in the loss of even more native wildlife.
The risk of sulfide-ore copper mining to our wilderness is unconscionable. The good news is that we can do something about it. So while we are all eagerly registering for our 2015 BWCA trips, we can and should take another type of action. I ask you to join me in urging our representatives, Congress as a whole and the White House to put new protections in place to permanently protect the area from mining. It will take our voices banded together to be heard, but we must do so to save the Boundary Waters.
Steve Piragis and his wife, Nancy, own Piragis Northwoods Co. in Ely, Minn.