Don't Mine What's Mine: Boundary Waters Threatened Again

The Boundary Waters is a special wild-place. An interconnected system of lakes, rivers, smaller tributaries, and wetlands, spanning over a million acres along the northern edge of Minnesota, it has been kept pristine thanks to its wilderness designation. Formally known as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), it is America’s most visited wilderness. But the Trump administration’s duplicity puts the entire system’s health under threat as it attempts to pave the way for a nearby mining project.

Most of the project’s benefit would go to a Chilean mining conglomerate, Antofagasta Minerals. One of the billionaire owners of Antofagasta also happens to be the DC landlord of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner. 

At issue is the administration ‘s decision to revive two previously expired copper-nickel sulfide mining leases located on the edge of the BWCAW, in Superior National Forest, and held by Twin Metals Minnesota, a subsidiary of Antofagasta Minerals. If mines were ever to be developed on the site, it would spell disaster for the wilderness and areas surrounding it. Which is why the Forest Service declined to offer the Bureau of Land Management its consent to renew the mineral leases in 2016. In a December 2016 letter from then-Forest Service director Tom Tidwell to then-BLM director Niel Kornze, Tidwell wrote:

“I find unacceptable the inherent potential risk that development of a regionally-untested copper-nickel sulfide ore mine within the same watershed as the BWCAW might cause serious and irreparable harm to this unique, iconic, and irreplaceable wilderness area.”

Following the denial of the lease renewals, the federal land management agencies proceeded to consider whether to withdraw the area from consideration for mineral leasing for up to two decades.

Nothing about the Boundary Waters’ inherent value has changed in the year since Director Tidwell’s letter, but the quality of the political leadership within the Interior Department certainly has. Last Friday, the Department of the Interior’s Deputy Solicitor, Daniel Jorjani, issued a legal opinion that effectively overturned BLM’s previous denial of a lease renewal for Twin Metals. Unsurprisingly, Interior’s legal opinion regurgitated many of the arguments made by the company itself.

Jorjani, like many of the administration’s officials, is an industry guy. Just prior to joining Trump’s Interior Department, he served as an advisor to the oil magnate and top conservative donor Charles Koch and, according to the New York Times, was one of his top paid employees.

Also notable was the timing of opinion’s release: the Friday preceding Christmas. Fridays are always popular for the most unpopular announcements; and days before a holiday break—when many reporters and other observers have already left their desks—are doubly so. Indeed, this a decision that will be met with widespread scorn. Minnesotans oppose sulfide ore copper mining near the Boundary Waters by a 32-point margin and 91 percent of all Americans say it’s important to protect and maintain America’s national parks, public lands, and natural places. The same proportion prioritizes protecting important natural places for future generations.

The Boundary Waters value isn’t just aesthetic and emotional, it’s economic. According to a recent study by Key-Log Economics, if the Twin Metals mine were to move forward, the cost to the region could be extremely high. That’s $288 million in lost visitor spending each year; between 5,066 and 22,791 lost jobs; between $402 million and $1.6 billion in lost annual income; and $344 million to $408 million in lost property value.

The Boundary Waters wilderness is undoubtedly worth perpetual preservation. The wilderness area encompasses pristine environment, unique in the American landscape, and it offers an unparalleled opportunity for exploration of both nature and the self. To risk its quality, its sanctity, would be an immense travesty.

About the Authors

Jacob Eisenberg

Associate Advocate, Oceans and Land & Wildlife programs

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