WASHINGTON – A proposal to lift a mining ban on land near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness scrambled political allegiances among Minnesota's members of Congress, dividing both Republicans and Democrats in a dispute over the state's signature recreational asset.

The House Thursday night approved an amendment sponsored by Reps. Tom Emmer, a Republican, and Rick Nolan, a Democrat who represents the area. It would reverse a two-year ban on mining leasing and exploration on about 234,000 federally owned acres near the BWCA.

"Through this amendment, we have a real opportunity to get the federal government out of the way so this land can remain available for future development to bring much-needed jobs and revenue to the great state of Minnesota," Emmer said.

House passage of the amendment opens the door to circumventing the review process through legislative means, but would still require approval by the U.S. Senate.

The amendment garnered opposition from Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen, who joined Democratic Rep. Betty McCollum in defending the moratorium that Emmer and Nolan want reversed. That moratorium was issued in the final weeks of the Obama administration to enable an environmental review to determine if sulfide-ore copper mining is environmentally safe there — and is a possible precursor to a 20-year ban on mining activity in that northeastern Minnesota region.

"The public process that is underway after hundreds of thousands of people have weighed in with their comments should not be ignored and tossed aside," Paulsen said on the House floor, calling the Boundary Waters the Minnesota version of Yellowstone National Park, and describing it as home to some of his own best memories. "And a science-based assessment of the best management practices of this sensitive ecosystem should be adhered to."

Paulsen added: "We owe it to future generations to understand the impact copper-nickel mining poses to Minnesota's most precious water and land before we put it at risk."

McCollum, who like Paulsen hails from the Twin Cities, has been the Minnesota congressional delegation's most vocal opponent of efforts to repeal the moratorium. She wants the environmental review to proceed.

"In my opinion, this amendment sets a horrible precedent, wastes taxpayer dollars already in this study, and threatens a national treasure, and it should never become law," McCollum said.

But Emmer said that a ban on leasing, exploration and potential mining activity "would have a devastating impact" on the economies of Minnesota and the nation.

In a statement after the vote, Nolan noted that he had helped pass the 1978 law that established the BWCA. He said the amendment upholds the integrity of the environmental review process for specific mining proposals "so that the already scarce resources of the U.S. Forest Service are not squandered on studies into hypothetical situations and projects that may or may not ever take place."

Maya Rao • 202-662-7433