Born and raised in the Great Lakes area, I have a poor grasp of how well people from other regions know the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) of northern Minnesota, and how well they know of the management issues in the region. I like to think that most people are familiar with the BWCAW, especially those who work with fisheries or wildlife – after all, this is the nation’s most visited wilderness area (https://sportsmenbwca.org/the-boundary-waters/), and contains over 1 million acres of waterbodies and northern boreal forest.
Beyond the megafauna (gray wolves, moose, and black bears), this area also contains one of the largest concentrations of native trout lakes in the contiguous United States. Lake trout and brook trout have sustained natural populations here since the glacial retreat, and are close neighbors with the warmwater species of walleye and northern pike. It’s an area packed with complex fish habitat, where deep and sprawling lakes may be joined by spiderwebbing, beaver-choked creeks. Over two thousand lakes are found here and range from 10 to 10,000 acres in surface area.
This is also an area rich in minerals; the Duluth Complex that lies underneath the region is thought to contain 4 billion tons of copper and nickel ore. Several international conglomerates (Twin Metals Minnesota, owned by Chilean-based Antofagasta; and PolyMet, owned by Switzerland-based Glencore) are pursuing major copper mining proposals in the region. PolyMet would be located within the greater Lake Superior watershed, while the Twin Metals mine would be within the greater Hudson Bay Watershed (the same watershed as the BWCAW). These are controversial projects with fierce advocates on both sides. Although iron mining has long been a staple of the northern Minnesota economy, copper sulfide mining is new to this area and presents unique challenges that include a high risk of mine tailings leakage and groundwater acidification. Resource extraction, fisheries, and tourism are all important economies with powerful lobbies; mining proposals quickly become politicized and progress erratically with changing administrations.
On January 14, 2020, Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) and Francis Rooney (R-FL) introduced H.R. 5598 to the House of Representatives: the “Boundary Waters Wilderness Protection and Pollution Prevention Act”. This bill would prevent copper-sulfide mining in much of the Superior National Forest where the Twin Metals mine would be located. It has been co-sponsored by forty-one Democrats and two Republicans and, although marginally bipartisan, would ultimately require President Trump’s signature after his previous decision to cancel environmental reviews of the project.
Ultimately, the question of mining within these watersheds is reflective of how Minnesotans and citizens of the United States prioritize income for this region – will we continue to rely on consumptive resource extraction, or will we increasingly invest in an outdoor tourism-centric economy? The stark differences in how these resources are used will not only have consequences for the local inhabitants, but for the fisheries and wildlife of the region as well. In an age with increasing importance of electronics that rely on copper and semi-precious metals, the location of new mines will continue to be a pressing question in the outdoor and environmental fields. Although no mines operate in the BWCAW itself, iron mining in the area has become an entrenched part of the culture in northern Minnesota. Both sides of this debate cite jobs as a major decision-maker in the process; Twin Metals’ website claims that the mine project will bring “700 direct full-time jobs and 1,400 spinoff jobs to residents of Ely, Babbitt and the greater northeast Minnesota community” (http://www.twin-metals.com/about-the-project/), while opponents of the mine cite an estimated $100 million in annual revenue from tourism within the Boundary Waters area (http://www.nmworg.org/).
Conflict between resource use on public land is not a new battle, and the long-term future of these lands will be decided by what we prioritize and where we decide to pursue consumptive practices such as mining. There is also an important lesson here for fisheries managers and scientists: historic bastions of fish habitat will continue to face challenges if the incentive is high enough, even in areas with the highest degree of legal protection.
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