Biden Team Moves to Save the Boundary Waters

The Biden administration’s very welcome decision to block sulfide-ore copper mining on the edges of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is personal to me and my family.

Shagawa Lake, photo by William Doniger

My wife’s grandparents, immigrants from Finland, settled in Ely, Minnesota, more than a century ago. Her grandfather worked in the iron ore mine until he was nearly killed in a cave-in. Her grandmother worked raising their family of seven children. They had a house in town but together they homesteaded a place on the north side of Shagawa Lake, across from Ely—a long wagon ride or rowboat trip to town—building a cabin, planting and harvesting hay and potatoes, and sending all seven kids to school across the lake and then to college. 

That three-room cabin, called the Big Shack, and the surrounding property remain in the family today, shared between my wife, her brother and sister, and her many cousins who’ve built other cabins. I proposed to my wife on the frozen lake 41 winters ago. My son took the picture above from the lakeside a couple of years ago. Here’s a picture of the Big Shack when my daughter was two.

My other daughter, her husband, and my two-year-old grandson spent the summer up there, working remotely thanks to high-speed internet now available from the town’s water tower.

We go up there nearly every summer. Like millions of others who enjoy America’s most visited wilderness, we’ve canoed in the BWCA and experienced its quiet, profound beauty. There are black bears, wolves, beavers, eagles, mink, moose, and more, both within the BWCA and in the surrounding region, including on my family’s land. The fishing is sublime. The beaver dam itself is an engineering marvel, creating its own lake that can be seen from space.

The BWCA saved Ely. The iron ore mine played out and closed long ago, and a recreation-based economy now sustains the town and the surrounding region.

Opening a sulfide-ore copper mine on the BWCA’s edge, within the same watershed, is an unacceptable threat to both the natural beauty and integrity of this ecosystem and the viability of the town’s new economy. The mine wouldn’t employ many people, and fewer local people. And if the mining advocates’ lofty assurances don’t quite work out, the mine could pollute the Boundary Waters permanently and irreparably.

As Becky Rom, leader of Save the Boundary Waters, says: "You don't allow America's most toxic industry next to America’s most popular Wilderness.”

Before any new copper mining is authorized anywhere in the country, we need to update America’s antiquated 19th century mining laws to meet 21st century realities.

The Obama administration stepped in to save the BWCA and block the mine. President Trump cynically and illegally pulled back those protections and started the wheels turning back towards mining. Now the Biden administration is putting things right again, before the damage could be done.

So, thank you to Interior Secretary Haaland, Agriculture Secretary Vilsack, and President Biden for these moves to save this treasured place for all of us, forever.

About the Authors

David Doniger

Senior Strategic Director, Climate & Clean Energy Program

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