On Thursday, January 26, Secretary of the Department of Interior (DOI) Deb Haalland signed Public Land Order 7917, effectively prohibiting all hard rock mining operations within a 225,504-acre swath of land inside the Superior National Forest of northeastern Minnesota. The order is designed to protect the famed Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA)—one of the most heavily-visited wilderness areas in the United States—from the harmful downstream effects of an underground copper-nickel mine that was proposed nearly a decade ago.
The struggle to protect the BWCA and the broader Superior National Forest from the adverse impacts of sulfide-ore copper mining goes back several years said Lukas Leaf, the executive director of a local conservation group called Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters. “It’s a vast boreal forest, 1.1 million acres of public land and waters managed by the Forest Service,” Leaf told Field & Stream. “The fishing is phenomenal. People go for four main species: northern pike, walleye, lake trout, and smallmouth bass.”
Leaf said that the DOI’s recent order will preserve the aquatic habitat that makes the Boundary Waters such a famous fishing destination—at least for the coming two decades. “It’s an incredibly water-rich environment full of interconnected lakes, streams, aquifers, rivers,” he says. “There are more than 1,000 lakes and something like 2,000 campsite only accessible by portaging or canoe. If it were to get polluted, it would be impossible to remediate.”
Sulfide-ore copper mines, like the one that’s been proposed on the edge of the Boundary Waters, are known for producing harmful chemical byproducts. “The main culprit of that is called acid mine drainage, which is basically a slurry of sulfuric acid and toxic heavy metals,” Leaf says. “We have a strong history of iron ore and taconite mining in this part of Minnesota, but there’s never been an operational sulfide-ore copper mine in the state.”
Leaf and his allies in the fight to preserve the Boundary Waters aim to keep it that way. The DOI’s recent decision is being applauded by such national conservation groups as the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP) and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (BHA), organizations that have worked alongside Leaf and Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters to ensure longstanding protections like those issued by Sec. Haaland last Thursday.
“The TRCP applauds the administration’s decision to safeguard the Rainy River watershed
from mining for the coming two decades, and we will continue to work to conserve the
Boundary Waters permanently,” said Whit Fosburgh, President and CEO of the Theodore
Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, in a statement issued last week. “This world-class fishing, hunting, and canoeing destination has provided generations of Americans with important outdoor experiences,
and today’s decision will support future opportunities.”
Collin O’Mara, president & CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, echoed Fosburgh’s sentiments. “The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is one of the most magnificent landscapes in America and provides outstanding habitat for moose, bear, otters, lynx, wolves, and hundreds of species of birds,” O’Mara said. “Allowing sulfide-ore mining in the ‘crown jewel of Up North’ would be devastating to the hundreds of wildlife species that make their home in the pristine watershed and would have threatened a billion-dollar outdoor recreation economy that supports 17,000 jobs.”
Leaf hopes that Haaland’s decision to suspend mining operations near the BWCA will buy his organization some time as they strive for permanent protections in the future. “In the U.S. Congress, Rep. Betty McCollum has indicated that she is going to re-introduce a bill which would lay out permanent protections for that watershed but also create some exclusions within the watershed for other types of extractive industries, like iron ore and taconite,” he said. “This is a nice moment to breathe, but we can’t stop for too long. We have some work to do in order to get that bill passed.”