Becky Rom tells the story with a glint of steely pride in her eyes.
When she was in seventh grade, her teacher assigned her to defend the creation of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in a debate before 150 classmates in the Ely school auditorium. She was the obvious choice. Her father was a local leader in the fight for the federal wilderness, a bitter debate that had consumed the family and the community for years.
When she was done with her passionate defense of a unique place worth extraordinary protections, the teacher asked for a show of hands. Rom lost, 148 to 2.
Now, more than 55 years later, she’s winning where it counts — in Washington, D.C. Rom, 67, is the brains and, many say, the heart behind the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, a swift and surprisingly effective national campaign that would seal off the BWCA by simply imposing a permanent ban on mining in its watershed. Thanks largely to that effort, the federal government is on the verge of issuing a decision that could put a halt to a $2.8 billion copper mine that has been proposed on the edge of the wilderness area.
The decision could mark a turning point for Minnesota — a shift in the balance between the state’s long heritage of mining and the vision to protect one of the few purely wild places left in the country.
And once again, she has set many in her hometown against her.
Rom and her supporters “get referred to as Ely’s 1 percent,’’ said the town’s mayor, Chuck Novak. “The 1 percent that’s comfortable because they have all this money, and the guy who wants a job that pays good in a mine doesn’t have a chance,’’ he said.
Rom responds unflinchingly: “Every generation has a responsibility. It’s not something I could walk away from.’’
There is more at stake than her love for the million-acre wilderness that shaped her own life. She longs to create a community that thrives on preserving the natural wonder around it, rather than exploiting it. It’s the only way, she thinks, to heal the three-generation-long rift that divided her hometown and nearly broke her father.
Whenever the phone rang during dinner in the Rom home, Becky and her brothers knew to stop talking while their father put down his fork and spoke with a customer who wanted to get into the woods. The family business — Canoe Country Outfitters — was one of the first in Ely to succeed by offering the Boundary Waters as a wilderness experience.
Bill Rom had been inspired by his mentor, Sigurd Olson, Ely’s legendary conservationist and a national leader of the wilderness movement. But he conceived of the outfitting business while serving in the Navy during World War II as an antidote to his piercing homesickness for Minnesota’s northern lakes.
“He had fallen in love with the place he lived in,” Rom said.
She and her brothers grew up helping out in the business, packing night crawlers into containers and organizing packs in the storeroom. At 14 she became the only girl guide in the state — taking families into the woods, humping their canoes over portages and cooking dinner for them over a fire.
Seventeen magazine published a story about the teenager “who even bakes blueberry muffins (with berries picked along the trail) in a reflector oven.” A photo in the Minneapolis Tribune shows her at age 16 in a cherry red beret and Ely High school sweatshirt gazing confidently at the camera from the back of a canoe.
At home, the conversations focused on the fight over the Wilderness Act — the subject of her seventh-grade debate — which finally passed in 1964. But what impressed her most, through the years of political wrangling and the anger among neighbors who felt their rights and livelihoods were being stolen, “was the diligence that was needed to protect it.”
The struggle also taught her a critical teenage survival skill: How to succeed in a small-town high school when just about everyone disagrees with you and your family. “That was always dicey for me,” she said. “But I learned you could still be friends with someone even if you disagreed with them.”
In the mid-1970s, the town erupted again over new federal legislation that would strengthen protections for the BWCA and restrict the logging and motor boat access that many Ely residents felt had been promised to them.
Rom had moved away, earned a law degree and begun clerking for federal Judge Miles Lord in Minneapolis. But she returned to Ely repeatedly to defend the bill in the face of fierce local protests. Sigurd Olson was hung in effigy and shouted down at a public meeting. She was home with her mother when protesters in logging trucks blockaded their business on two of the most critical weekends of the year. Her father left town so he wouldn’t have to face picket lines made up of the “people he grew up with,” Rom said. Her brother spent nights inside the business with his dog and a gun.
The law passed.
Many in Ely saw it as yet another betrayal.
Leonard Cersine is a township board supervisor who witnessed local resorts and cabins torn down inside what is now the wilderness.
“The local people — I don’t think they’ve ever won,” he said.
That same year, plagued by increasing pain from a heart condition, Bill Rom gave the keys to an assistant manager and walked away from Canoe Country Outfitters.
“He wasn’t bitter,” Rom said. “But to me it’s sad — like the divisiveness in the town defeated him in the end.”
PolyMet or Twin Metals?
By now, Becky Rom was supposed to be retired.
In 2012, after a career in commercial real estate law with Faegre and Benson, she and her husband moved back to Ely. Their family cabin, built on land her father bought, is now a stunning log home overlooking Burntside Lake.
“I thought we were going to go camping,” she said with a shrug.
Instead she found herself at odds with her longtime environmental allies.
A statewide debate about copper mining in northern Minnesota was on the boil. The new industry promised a long-dreamed-of resurgence for the Iron Range — but one that came with far greater environmental risks to water than taconite mining. The metal is contained in rock that contains sulfides, and when exposed to air and water it generates acid that leaches toxic metals into the water.
Industry executives say that, with modern technologies, they can protect the environment. But such mines have left a devastating legacy of water pollution in other places around the world.
Minnesota’s leading environmental groups made a strategic decision to challenge the first company to enter Minnesota’s regulatory gantlet: PolyMet Mining Corp., which has proposed an open-pit mine near Hoyt Lakes.
But Rom was convinced they had chosen the wrong mine.
A company known as Twin Metals, a subsidiary of the giant Chilean mining concern Antofagasta PLC, also was planning a massive copper mine. It would be just outside Ely on the Kawishiwi River, a major tributary to the Boundary Waters and Voyageur’s National Park — meaning that any pollution from the mine would flow into the wilderness.
Steve Piragis, who runs one of the biggest outfitting and outdoors stores in Ely, said Rom was blunt with her environmental allies.
“ ‘You’re wrong,’ she told them. And it led to some hard feelings,” he said.
Rom and others declined to talk about the rift, saying it’s behind them. But it launched Rom right back into the decades-long fight over the BWCA, and now, some who initially disagreed with her long-shot strategy are impressed. Rom has become a leader “who demonstrates that the environmental movement does not think big enough,” said Kathryn Hoffman, an attorney with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.
Even her opponents in Ely agree she’s been formidable.
“If not for her, this would not be anywhere,” Novak said. “She has the brains and the money.”
‘Hi, we’re from Ely’
The effort began in the winter of 2013 when Rom and her husband joined a series of Monday night strategy sessions held by a small group of Ely business owners, including explorer Paul Schurke, who oppose the mine.
Schurke laughs now at the speed of the metamorphosis she inspired. “She took us from a coffee shop operation to a national campaign,” he said.
A permanent federal ban on all mining in the BWCA watershed would require a decades-long legal and regulatory effort that has succeeded in only a few other places, — like the Grand Canyon. But the first step is to persuade federal regulators to deny the mining leases that would give Twin Metals access to the ore.
“Those leases were like a flashing red light to me,” Rom said.
Granting Twin Metals the leases, she said, would inevitably lead to a mine, and that would launch an industrial mining district on the threshold of the Boundary Waters.
“Sulfide mining is inherently dangerous,” she said. “And this is the highest risk location.”
Twin Metals responds that the federal leases are just for exploration, not necessarily a mine. Moreover, said spokesman Bob McFarlin, there is already a “protection zone” around the wilderness.
McFarlin said state and local governments have long encouraged mining in the watershed, adding that as long as the company meets state and federal environmental standards, as Twin Metals has promised, it should be allowed to go forward, he said.
“What we are asking for is that we be allowed to develop the project under the law,” he said.
The law, however, also gives the federal government the authority to say no, Rom argues. And for the last three years, she and others from Ely, armed with maps, economic and scientific studies, legal opinions and petitions have made regular pilgrimages to Washington, D.C., to make that case. They’ve met with Congress members and officials at the Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Land Management, and Department of the Interior.
“We always say, ‘Hi, we’re from Ely,’ ” Rom says.
Behind them are 35 national groups, from the National Wildlife Federation to corporations like Patagonia, that altogether represent an e-mail list of 17 million potential supporters.
A national law firm is providing legal advice for free. And the campaign’s rallying cry — “You have once chance to save a national treasure” — is spreading across the country through articles in AARP magazine, the New York Times travel section and “Bear Witness,” a new documentary.
The debate includes many powerful pro-mining voices as well, including some labor unions, Iron Range legislators, DFL congressman Rick Nolan, and the state’s business interests.
But Rom’s voice is being heard.
Earlier this year Gov. Mark Dayton announced his opposition to a mine so close the Boundary Waters, and said he would deny Twin Metals critical access to state-owned lands.
At the same time, the U.S. Department of the Interior refused to automatically renew the exploration leases as it has in the past. Instead the U.S. Forest Service, saying it was “deeply concerned” about the environmental risks, took the unusual step of holding public meetings in Duluth and Ely.
Twin Metals promptly responded with a lawsuit charging that the federal government has no right to deny the leases. Last week, Rom’s side staked out its ground in court as well by asking for permission to join the lawsuit.
The U.S. Forest Service is expected to make a decision on the leases yet this year. But on Nov. 8, all Rom’s hopes for working with a Democratic administration came crashing down.
“I felt numb, just like when my father died,” she said of the presidential election. But two days later she lived up to her husband’s description of her as “tough as nails.”
Speaking to a group of 50 supporters who had gathered for a potluck dinner in Ely, she said, “It’s a different world.” But she was ready with a new strategy. Donald Trump’s sons are avid outdoorsmen, she said, and the campaign would adapt by relying even more on the more politically conservative hunting and fishing groups to be the face of the campaign.
“We have to work harder,” she said. “It’s worth remembering that we’ve been here before.”