A National Treasure At Risk

Andy Cochrane
Jul 30 · 8 min read

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness protects critical habitat for hundreds of species, feeds a thriving economy, and offers wilderness experiences for millions of visitors. The B-dub, as it’s affectionately called by locals, has been the most visited wilderness in the country every year since the Wilderness Act of 1964. It’s an iconic collection of lakes, rivers, and wetlands that has no equal–there is nothing like it in the entire country. It gives identity to the entire state of Minnesota. Like many public lands across the country, it’s under serious and imminent threat.

Four sulfide-ore copper mine deposits are proposed on the edge of the protected water network, a toxic practice that would leach into the entire system–1.1 million acres of federal land that contain 20% of the fresh water in the National Forest system. Mining companies are demanding mineral leases on the edge of the wilderness that would open up a corridor for dozens of mines, road networks, and tailing piles. These mines, even with the most conservative estimates, would leach toxins into this sacred area for hundreds of years.

Northeastern Minnesota is no stranger to large mining operations. Known colloquially as the Iron Range, the collection of small communities in this corner of Minnesota once produced more iron-ore than anywhere else in the world. It was the engine that fueled our steel revolution with countless cars, buildings, and battleships. While the iron-ore industry has been on the decline for decades, it is still prevalent on the Iron Range. Many mining families go back generations–it is an integral part of their identity. Because of this, the issue isn’t as straightforward as one might hope.

But there is a pivotal difference between sulfide-ore copper mining and the taconite mining that has existed for decades. Sulfide-ore is much more toxic, producing tailing piles that leach sulfuric acid, heavy metals, and sulfates. It pollutes groundwater, unlike taconite mining that utilizes open pit mines. This difference can not be understated–in many ways, it makes the two hard to compare at all. Unfortunately, conflating the two has been a large hurdle for those trying to protect the wilderness.

In full disclosure, the issue in Northern Minnesota is personal for me. I grew up in Grand Marais, the eastern gateway to the Boundary Waters, and one of the Midwest’s still-somewhat-secret gems. I was spoiled on federal lands as a kid and never looked back. I feel a duty to protect the place that taught me to love wolf calls, early mornings, sufferfests, texturized vegetable protein (Google it), duct tape, journaling, and swimming in cold bodies of water. I cut my teeth on long B-dub portages and still carry many of those lessons with me today. Like most visitors, I hope that the opportunity to paddle and portage around the Boundary Waters is something we collectively decide to give to our kids and in turn, their kids. As more and more places like this disappear, it’s not something we should take for granted.

To understand the issue I returned home. I did what I’ve done since I was 2 years old–I went paddling with my parents. We borrowed a wood canvas canoe from Jeanne Bourquin, a resident of Ely and world-renowned canoe builder. Jeanne and I talked for a bit before she pointed out the locations of the four drillings sites on a map. While Jeanne is an incredibly optimistic person, she’s frustrated that locals aren’t willing to talk to each other. “People in Ely don’t talk about it except with people they know share their own views. No one is trying to reach consensus. This parallels most politics in general in our country. We don’t talk to each other, especially people we disagree with. Ely is a little microcosm of national politics.”

Knowing the community was polarized, I reached out to an array of local stakeholders–business owners, scientists, activists, and Ojibwe band members. The goal of this outreach was to capture a holistic perspective on the mining issue and to give a voice to many of those who would be affected. I’ve done my best to summarize the key impact areas, but will admit it’s probably not an exhaustive list–there are almost too many potential impacts of the mines, and I’ve probably missed a few.

Historical Implications

In a conversation with Rob Coughlin, the VP of Sales and Product Development at the locally owned and operated pack manufacturer Granite Gear, I learned that “in the history of sulfide mining, pollution has never been avoided” and after an audible pause in which I fumbled for words “it’s a forgone conclusion that these mines will pollute. Everyone knows it.” While I often find statements this black-and-white to be overly apocalyptic, it was echoed by almost everyone I talked to. To date every sulfide-ore copper mine in the country has leaked toxins, and most of those mines were in dry and arid places. Surrounded by wetlands, the proposed mines adjacent to the Boundary Waters would be at an even larger risk. This got me thinking on what amount of wilderness we would, collectively, be willing to risk. Becky Rom, an Ely native, retired lawyer, and the National Chair of the Save The Boundary Waters campaign gave me the answer I was looking for “it’s the most popular wilderness in the country. If this isn’t safe, what is?”

Economic Implications

My conversation with Becky was enlightening, but not in the way I had guessed. Instead of focusing on aquatic species or environmental impact assessments, we mostly talked business. While the heart of the issue is the consequence of leaked toxins, the first question almost everyone asks is about jobs. Specifically, how many the new mines will create and how many the Boundary Waters currently support. While this question is an ugly oversimplification, it’s necessary to address if you want to get to the core of issue.

The Iron Range is an amenity based economy. Natural resources have driven growth for centuries. This evolved from trapping and fishing in the 1800’s to logging and taconite mining in the 1900’s, to today, in which outdoor recreation and tourism are, by a healthy margin, the biggest drivers of growth. More than 7 out of 10 residents work in these service industries. Thousands of tourists make the pilgrimage north every summer, creating a seasonal boom that heavily subsidizes long winters. The most recent influx of residents and notable growth comes from second home owners and retirees who value the quality of life including proximity to the Boundary Waters. While sulfide-ore copper mines are trying to sell themselves as the resurgence of a declining industry, they dramatically risk long term economic development. The most aggressive estimates show the mines creating 650 new jobs over the course of 40 years, only a fraction of what outdoor recreation already supports. The Boundary Waters region is already thriving, despite a tiny population of roughly 10,000 full time residents. The area produces $1.39B every year, which would likely plummet if the wilderness lost its iconic reputation.

Environmental Implications

To better understand the science behind toxins potentially polluting the Boundary Waters, I went to Tom Myers, a Ph.D. Hydrologist who is a leading expert on water flow in Northern Minnesota. Scientific details can get esoteric quickly, so I’ve done some translation into common speak. Here’s the key takeaways. The water in this area is extremely high quality with very few base compounds, meaning there is almost no natural buffer to the acidic mine drainage. Further, this is one of the most interconnected water systems in the world, meaning the damage would likely be expansive and uncontrollable. The proposed mine sites are yards from water sources, primarily the Kawishiwi River, which almost guarantees the toxins find a way in.

Dr. Myers didn’t stop with an initial analysis. To better understand the potential impact he developed a model to show the flow of ground and surface water that would transport contaminants into the Boundary Waters. Using various scenarios he was able to better understand the best, base, and worst case outcomes. In even the most conservative model substantial contaminants leak in the BWCA for decades, creating devastating impacts. His conclusion reads “if the sulfide mines are developed, it is not a question of whether, but when, a leak will occur that will have major impacts on the water quality of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.”

Toxins would first impact fish and other aquatic species and quickly make their way through the food chain. The lakes and streams downstream of the proposed mine sites rank among some of the world’s best walleye fisheries. This would be sacrificed immediately. It wouldn’t take long before leached toxins posed a public health threat to communities that rely on aquifers near the Kawishiwi.

Local Implications

To understand the issue on an individual perspective, I reached out a few business owners in the area. Steve Piragis, the owner of one of the largest outfitters in Ely, said to me “long term we’d likely have to move or sell.” Steve runs a $4M+ business with 20 full time employees and would expect to see an immediate decline in business with a mine next door. Many local business owners have similar concerns. Paul Schurke, the owner of Wintergreen, an apparel and adventure company based in Ely, added that “the massive excavation impact and light, noise, dust, air & water pollution from a mine that is proposed to rank among the world’s largest would be completely incompatible with our region’s reputation of quiet, pristine lakes and forests. My business relies on that reputation as does our entire region’s tourism economy.“

The more I talked to local business owners, the more ominous the picture became. The path of pollution would flow through a chain of lakes that includes 30 of the area’s key resorts, camps, campgrounds, University of Minnesota research facility, and outfitters, including Wintergreen. Leaked toxins would indefinitely end the vacation mecca in Northern Minnesota. Rob from Granite Gear had similar thoughts. “Minnesota drives more sales than any other state and these mines would change our business radically. At least 20% of our business would be impacted, just by the perception of the mines.”

Amy and Dave Freeman, who spent the entire last year–366 days straight–paddling, dog sledding, and camping in the Boundary Waters, helped put the issue in a beautifully simple summary. “It’s the most polluting industry in the nation right on the edge of true wilderness.” The two are amazingly pragmatic yet optimistic “public land issues like this just take a long time. There is a lot of thought and a lot of process that goes into it. We’re in the middle of that right now. The most important part is that we invest heavily in the scientific review and make an educated decision.” The recent public comment period ended last month and received 126,000 responses, more than any other in state history. The majority of Minnesotans support the protection of the Boundary Waters. Amy and Dave suggested multiple times that individuals can really make a difference.

What many fear is that damage to the image and character of the Boundary Waters would be permanent while the sulfide-ore copper mines would live a quick, boom-and-bust lifecycle. Paul from Wintergreen clued me into a US Geological Survey that confirms that there is enough accessible copper in the ground worldwide to supply global needs for thousands of years, and much of it is in arid places where it can be mined with much less risk. “Northern Minnesota is not one of those places” was his parting thought.

To keep the Boundary Waters protected, we all need to stay involved and take action. National politicians are working to fast-track these mines and they need to hear from you, their constituents, that the Boundary Waters needs protecting. To learn more, I strongly encourage you to read more about the efforts by the Campaign to Save The Boundary Waters, sign the petition, and reach out to it directly. It is leading the charge to keep this unique national treasure protected. This one-of-a-kind Wilderness can still be saved, but only if we act now.

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