Boundary Waters sunset
Photo credit: Ryan Harvey via Flickr

Opinion: The Most Controversial Land in America

Many people don’t realize that the Boundary Waters is probably the most continually controversial piece of land in the country. People have fought over it for more than 100 years, and there’s every indication it will continue to be controversial well into the future. Here’s why.

Last week, Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness sued the Trump administration for the second time. As with our previous lawsuit, we are trying to stop the illegal renewal of two expired mineral leases that Twin Metals needs to open a copper-sulfide mine at the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW).

These leases had expired, but once Trump took office, the new administration resurrected them, effectively rolling out the red carpet for what the EPA has named the most polluting industry in the country.

The fight over the proposed copper-sulfide mines near the Boundary Waters has become one of the biggest environmental controversies in the country. Copper-sulfide mining has a near-perfect track record of contaminating groundwater, polluting surrounding lakes and rivers, and causing long-term damage to entire ecosystems.

In a water-rich environment like northeastern Minnesota, it would be a disaster. Despite the dangers, some believe copper-sulfide mining — which has never been done in Minnesota — has the potential to revitalize the economy of the region. But it’s a dubious claim at best.

And for more than a decade now, there have been protests, newspaper editorials, campaign promises, studies, proposed legislation, and more, all hovering around the proposed mines. Just when it seems like environmentalists can claim victory, a month later the mines appear to be all but inevitable. It can be hard to keep up with all the ups and downs.

The Boundary Waters, which is the nation’s most-visited wilderness area, has been engulfed in a political firestorm. For those who follow the issue, either casually or closely, it’s easy to wonder: When will this be resolved?

The Boundary Waters: A Century of Conflict

Most visitors to the Boundary Waters don’t realize they’re traveling in what is probably the most continually controversial piece of land in the United States. Far from being a pristine wilderness that was simply set aside for all to enjoy, factions have fought over every protected acre of the Boundary Waters.

At the heart of the conflict is the fact that this is an area that is rich in both economic resources — iron, copper, nickel, timber, fur, and hydropower — and natural beauty.

Winter Boundary Waters Clothing
Photo credit: Amy Freeman

The Boundary Waters did not just happen. At least two international treaties, three presidential proclamations, five acts of Congress, two executive orders, three Supreme Court rulings, and many management plans by the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies guide the use and care of the wilderness so many treasure today.

Timber

The modern history of the Boundary Waters began more than 100 years ago when Minnesota’s Forest Commissioner set aside about half a million acres of forest in northeastern Minnesota and protected it from the timber industry.

He did this in the middle of a logging boom, and to many, the move was an economic straightjacket and an act of government overreach. These sentiments persisted with the creation of the Superior National Forest and would echo through the decades to come.

Roads

Even when used for public recreation, issues of accessibility and what kind of recreation was acceptable quickly became flashpoints. By the 1920s, northeastern Minnesota was a destination for outdoor canoe adventurers. Most arrived by automobile, and this led to tensions over how far these roads would extend.

When a plan to build a road connecting Ely to the Gunflint Trail (roughly where the Kekekkabec Trail now runs) took shape, conservation groups took action. Such a project, they warned, would spoil the wilderness people were coming from all over the country to experience. Ultimately, advocates of a roadless wilderness won. New management policies were adopted, and the road was never built.

Dams

Around the same time, a timber baron name Edward Backus announced his intention to build seven dams on the Rainy River. This was a more protracted fight with more at stake. Fortunately, the dams, which would have drowned out Curtain and Basswood falls, raised the water levels on Lac La Croix, and more were never built.

These early battles were proof that maintaining and preserving wilderness in the 20th century and beyond would be an ongoing challenge. In subsequent decades, and over the course of several generations, a patchwork of imperfect regulations, statutes, and laws was put in place.

Copper-Sulfide Mining

Gradually, this area that had once been heavily logged, exploited for profit, and combed through by prospectors and industrialists was protected and restored.

However, the fundamental tension between the Boundary Waters’ rich resources and natural beauty remains. With proposals to open the region to copper-sulfide mining, we once again see that plans to extract these resources pose an inherent threat to the wilderness.

We’ve been here before. In the 1970s, there was a push to mine copper in the same locations PolyMet and Twin Metals have proposed. There was enormous pushback, and ultimately, the laws of economics prevented any mine from breaking ground. Though northeastern Minnesota may contain one of the largest untapped deposits of copper, it’s of such poor quality that it has never been economically feasible to mine.

But whatever the economic conditions, so long as there is copper underground, there will be companies devising ways to squeeze labor, increase automation, cut corners, and lobby away environmental protections in order to dig it up and turn a profit.

Likewise, there will always be people who recognize that this is a place worth fighting for, a place worth protecting. In addition to the lawsuits to stop Twin Metals, Representative Betty McCollum (D-MN) has introduced federal legislation that would ban sulfide-ore mining in a large part of the Boundary Waters watershed.

And on the state level, Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness is championing Prove it First Legislation, which would require a company to prove that a copper-sulfide mine has operated elsewhere for a number of years, and been closed for a number of years, without causing pollution.

The Path Ahead for the Boundary Waters

Even if these bills pass, it’s unlikely the controversy over Boundary Waters, from proposed copper-sulfide mines or otherwise, will end in our lifetime.

But this is nothing to be discouraged by. We should feel fortunate enough to have the opportunity to protect such a stunning wilderness and encouraged to know that we are part of a long legacy of stewardship.

Let’s not take the Boundary Waters for granted. History could have turned out differently in many ways. There might be roads accessing every lake, motorboats on the water, and mega cabins on the shores. There could be an industrial mining district extracting copper and nickel beside plots of clear-cut forests.

But there isn’t.


Pete Marshall is the communications director with Friends of the Boundary Waters Wildnerness, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit with a mission “to protect, preserve and restore the wilderness character of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and the Quetico-Superior Ecosystem.”