Commentary

The Boundary Waters

An example of stewardship

Stewardship of the Earth is an important facet of our Lutheran faith. Often this
stewardship takes many years to accomplish and builds on the work of those
who came before us. Such is the case with the protection of the Boundary
Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) in northeastern Minnesota.

Thirty years ago this October, Congress passed and President Jimmy Carter
signed the 1978 BWCAW Act. This desperately-needed law provided
important protections for the BWCAW, but left some unfinished work still
needed to protect the canoe country for future generations.

Led by Representatives Donald Fraser (D-MN), Bruce Vento (D-MN), and
Philip Burton (D-CA), Congress eventually passed the 1978 law after a
number of weakening compromises made in both the House and Senate. This
law ended logging in the BWCA (and protected the remaining 540,000 acres
of unlogged forest), reduced (but did not eliminate) motorboat use, phased
out snowmobiling (except for two short access routes to Canadian
properties), tightly restricted mining within the Boundary Waters and
established a BWCA Mining Protection Area outside the Wilderness, expanded
the area by about 68,000 acres in key additions like the Hegman Lakes and
Brule Lake, and officially added “Wilderness” to the area’s name.

Though the new protections in the 1978 law were significant, they did not
provide safeguards from all problems or threats to the area’s wilderness
character. About 21 percent of the area’s water surface area still remains
open to roaring motorboats. Jeeps and ATVs continue to drive across two
wilderness portages. Climate change may dramatically change the ecosystem
of the canoe country. Natural processes like fire are still not allowed to fully
function unmanipulated by humankind. Heavy visitation at times threatens
the area’s solitude and wilderness character. Illegal motorboat and
snowmobile use still occurs. The remaining roadless areas in the Superior
National Forest, most of them along the periphery of the BWCAW, are
threatened with road-building and logging. And mining was not absolutely
forbidden in the BWCAW, with new proposed sulfide mining projects just
outside the Boundary Waters posing major threats to the area.

In northeastern Minnesota, a whole series of proposed sulfide mining
projects is being developed. The ore sought by developers is copper, nickel,
and precious metals like gold, platinum, and palladium. But the ore bodies
are found in sulfide-bearing rock, and these projects pose potentially
devastating impacts on water quality and the environment because they can
produce acid mine drainage.

Acid mine drainage has occurred from every other sulfide mine in the entire
country. The acid that leaches from waste rock piles or underground mines
can leach for decades, perhaps forever. This kind of mining is very different
from the iron ore and taconite mining operations elsewhere in northeastern
Minnesota.

The state and federal governments are now preparing a draft environmental
impact statement to look at potential impacts of the first project in line, a
large open-pit strip mine proposed by PolyMet between Hoyt Lakes and
Babbitt. (Franconia’s project is probably the next in line, likely to propose a
sulfide mining operation underneath Birch Lake, which lies within the
watershed of the BWCAW.) But the U.S. Forest Service owns about 6,700 acres
of land that the company wants. PolyMet, however, doesn’t want to deal with
the Forest Service as a landlord, and is too impatient to conduct a land
exchange process, the normal method for resolving situations like this.

Unfortunately, Minnesota’s two U.S. Senators, Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and
Norm Coleman (R-MN), and Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-MN) have introduced bills
in Congress at PolyMet’s behest to bypass the land exchange process and the
accompanying analysis that an exchange would require. Their bills, S. 3411
and H.R. 4292, would direct the Forest Service to sell the land outright to
PolyMet, avoid the review that would come with a land exchange process, and
grease the skids for the development of this huge strip mine.

So as we celebrate 30 years of increased wilderness protections for the
BWCAW, let’s not forget the unfinished work that lies ahead if we are to pass
down a truly protected wilderness legacy to future generations. As part of this
unfinished work, we must be vigilant in protecting our public lands and
waters like the BWCAW from the potentially devastating impacts of sulfide
mining.

Kevin Proescholdt is a member of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in
Minneapolis, and directs the Wilderness and Public Lands Program for the
Izaak Walton League of America. A former BWCAW guide, he helped pass the
1978 law through Congress and co-authored the definitive book on that
struggle, Troubled Waters: The Fight for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area
Wilderness.