Big step: Interior denies mining lease renewal in Minnesota's Boundary Waters

Mining lease renewal has been denied in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Credit: Alan Strakey, flickr.

Decision by U.S. Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture stops renewal of leases for sulfide-ore mining in the Boundary Waters’ watershed that could have contaminated the wilderness’ lakes and rivers.

The announcement represents a major victory in a years-long fight to protect the iconic Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. It triggers a process of evaluating whether to entirely halt mining immediately to the southwest of the wilderness over the next two decades.  

"[The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness] has been a favorite destination for millions of Americans who marvel at its unique waterways and forests and is a vital component of Minnesota’s economy," said Wilderness Society President Jamie Williams in a statement with other groups [PDF]. "For these reasons, the Boundary Waters must be protected for all time, and this decision by the Forest Service is a critical first step towards that goal.”  

Becky Rom, national chair of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters and governing council member at The Wilderness Society, said the decision "reflects strong support from a majority of Minnesotans who want to prioritize the wide-ranging value our communities gain from a healthy Boundary Waters, rather than open an industrial mining zone less than a mile from the wilderness edge.” 

Governor had opposed mining plan 

In March 2016, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton announced his opposition to potentially harmful mining near the famed wilderness. In a letter to Ian Duckworth, chief operating officer of Twin Metals Minnesota, the governor said he had “grave concerns” about the impacts of the company’s proposal to mine metal in sulfide-bearing ore near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, which he called a “crown jewel” in the state. 

The governor instructed the state Department of Natural Resources "not to authorize or enter into any new state access agreements or lease agreements" for mining on state lands near the wilderness, and further noted that he had told the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to deny the renewal of mineral leases on federal land.

Experts say that sulfide-ore mining in the Boundary Waters’ watershed could contaminate the wilderness’ lakes and rivers, which could also affect Voyageurs National Park. Governor Dayton’s strong opposition to the project was seen as a critical step in ensuring that Twin Metals never open the potentially disastrous mine.

Mining would threaten the Boundary Waters’ watershed

The Twin Metals proposal is a venture of a Chile-based company to extract copper, nickel and other metals at larges mine near the town of Ely, which lies within a few miles of the wilderness area’s southwest boundary. The intent of the project is to derive these minerals from ore that contains sulfide, a process that can discharge sulfuric acid, sulfates and heavy metals (some of which are highly toxic) into water, harming fish and wildlife. Adding to these concerns is the  sulfide-ore copper mining industry’s  poor safety record.

Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is among the most-visited wilderness areas in the U.S. Credit: A. Strakey, flickr.

To access ore near the Boundary Waters, Twin Metals asked the Bureau of Land Management to renew two federal mineral leases that predate laws requiring environmental review of mining plans. Local business-owners and others argued that nearby communities have a strong economic outlook due to outdoor recreation, which would be jeopardized by mining so close to this treasured wilderness area. The new decision cited likely impacts on the recreation economy as cause for denying the lease renewal.

The Boundary Waters is among America’s most popular wilderness areas

Nestled in the northern portion of the Superior National Forest, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is often cited as the most visited federal wilderness area in the U.S., and for good reason. Boasting 1,200 miles of canoe routes, 18 hiking trails and nearly 2,200 campsites, it is a well-trod outdoor recreation hotspot that draws everyone from dog-sledders to kayakers.

But despite its popularity, the Boundary Waters retains a wild, natural character. Rugged cliffs, rolling hills, canyon walls, rocky shores and sandy beaches hug more than 1,000 lakes varying in size from 10 to 10,000 acres. Spots for solitude and reflection are plentiful, and the wilderness contains habitat for wildlife like gray wolves, lynx, otters and black bears.

Thankfully, the years-long campaign to mine metals from sulfide-bearing ore near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness has been dealt a critical blow. Stay tuned for information on how to permanently stop this threat to land, water and recreation that Americans hold dear.