In "Fighting to save the soul of Minnesota" (March 14) former Vice President Walter Mondale endorsed an extremist proposal, calling on the U.S. Department of the Interior to unilaterally withdraw from future leasing and development of all federally owned minerals located in the vast Rainy River Basin of northern Minnesota.

This draconian federal land grab proposal offers no environmental benefits, but would be devastating to northern Minnesota's economy and prospects for future job growth. Fortunately, this proposed scheme to put the future of northern Minnesota's economy in the hands of Washington bureaucrats is strongly opposed by a multitude of current state DFL leaders such as U.S. Sen. Al Franken, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Eighth District Rep. Rick Nolan and the entire Iron Range state legislative delegation.

The Minnesota portion of the Rainy River Basin covers more than 11,000 square miles and includes such cities as Warroad, International Falls, Big Fork, Cook and Ely, as well as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) and Voyageurs National Park. The basin also contains millions of acres of valuable federal, state and privately owned minerals, including nearly 1.3 million acres of Minnesota Permanent School Trust Fund minerals, which offer billions of dollars in potential revenue for K-12 schools throughout the state. Environmentally responsible mining is currently allowed and encouraged in most of the basin under both state and federal law.

Anti-mining organizations are falsely marketing the federal mineral withdrawal proposal as necessary to protect the region's environment. In reality, withdrawing the Rainy River Basin's federal minerals from future development would do nothing to enhance existing environmental protections. Mining is already prohibited within the boundaries and buffer zones of the BWCAW and Voyageurs, and the lakes, rivers and streams throughout the basin are protected by strict state and federal environmental laws.

Under the rigorous and well-established National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and Minnesota Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) environmental review and public input processes, no proposed mining project within the basin, or anywhere in Minnesota, can move forward unless state and federal regulatory agencies determine the project can meet environmental protection standards. These NEPA and MEPA processes offer the additional benefit of giving impacted communities, citizens and all interested parties the opportunity to review and comment on specific proposals, and to have a say in the economic future of their communities and the state.

With no environmental benefits, the primary impact of withdrawing the basin's federal minerals would be to prohibit nearly all potential future mining projects within the basin — whether involving federal, state or privately owned minerals — with corresponding devastating economic consequences across the Iron Range and throughout northern Minnesota. In studies conducted by the University of Minnesota Duluth, the projected positive economic impact to northeastern Minnesota of future environmentally responsible copper-nickel mining projects includes the creation of more than 5,000 jobs related to mining operations, 12,000 jobs related to mining construction, $1.5 billion in annual wages, and more than $2.5 billion in annual economic production.

Under the extremist federal mineral withdrawal proposal, this promising economic potential would be drastically diminished, if not lost altogether.

Sen. Klobuchar has stated that the federal mineral withdrawal proposal would "threaten the economic future of the Iron Range," while Sen. Franken has noted that "we already have strong state and federal standards in place." Rep. Nolan has termed the proposal "[an] overlapping regulatory scheme designed to prohibit mining on the Iron Range."

These thoughtful leaders have it right. Any current or future mining proposals within the Rainy River Basin will be subject to extensive and thorough state and federal environmental review and permitting processes — processes that ensure the long-term protection of Minnesota's environment and natural resources. The withdrawal of federal minerals within the Rainy River Basin from future leasing and development would not improve or enhance these environmental processes and protections, but only deal a crippling blow to northern Minnesota's economic future. This extreme proposal should be rejected.

Frank Ongaro is executive director of Mining Minnesota.