The iconic Boundary Waters Canoe Area has received some support from the feds as they have denied lease renewal requests from a mining company.
Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) is one of the true large wilderness areas in the Midwest. Human traffic is strictly regulated and the area has remained virtually as pristine as it was over 50 years ago when congress first designated it as a national treasure.
The area just received a nod to continued protection as both of the departments of the Interior and Agriculture issued a joint decision to deny, at least temporarily, the application for renewal of two mining leases in the BWCAW watershed.
"Today's best available science is helping us understand the value of the land and water and potential impacts of development in places like the Boundary Waters," said U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell. "This is the right action to take to avoid irrevocably damaging this watershed and its recreation-based economy, while also taking the time and space to review whether to further protect the area from all new mining."
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack echoed Jewell's comment by also citing the economic impact to the region of the BWCAW:
"The Boundary Waters is a natural treasure, special to the 150,000 who canoe, fish, and recreate there each year, and is the economic life blood to local business that depend on a pristine natural resource. I have asked Interior to take a time out, conduct a careful environmental analysis and engage the public on whether future mining should be authorized on any federal land next door to the Boundary Waters."
The Agriculture Department's U.S. Forest Service denied the renewal of two mineral leases presented by Twin Metals Minnesota, which have been held by the company since 1966. The leases expired and were renewed in 2004. Twin Metals again reapplied for their renewal in 2012. The feds held two listening and feedback sessions this past summer, during which they received over 30,000 comments from both sides of the issue.
While no mining has been attempted since the original date of issuance, the leases would have allowed for the mining of copper, nickel and other minerals from the leased lands.
The leased lands are located within three miles of the BWCAW. Environmental contamination of the surrounding watershed was claimed by the Forest Service as a key concern in making their decision to deny the leases. Such mines have a history of acid drainage into the surrounding ecosystems and could adversely impact aquatic life and fisheries, and subsequently, the local economies that depend on them.
The Washington Post indicates that, "The wilderness area, which spans nearly 1.1 million acres along the Canadian border, is one of the most visited of its kind in the United States. It boasts lakes and streams dating from the Pleistocene Epoch, 100 species of migratory birds and an active fishery."
Twin Metals, however, expressed its disappointment with the decision, stating:
"If allowed to stand, [they] will have a devastating impact on the future economy of the Iron Range and all of Minnesota, eliminating the promise of thousands of good-paying jobs and billions of dollars in investment in the region. Further, this unprecedented decision is contrary to the overwhelming majority of local and regional citizens and communities who support mining and believe mining can be done responsibly in this region."
There is some wiggle room in the decision. Firstly, there is a two-year "time out" during which the leased lands are segregated and an environmental analysis is conducted. During this period of segregation the BLM and the Forest Service will determine, based on the environmental analysis as well as input from multiple public sources, if the lands should be withdrawn for a period of 20 years.
The Department of the Interior admitted that they "can only withdraw these lands for a maximum of 20 years. Only Congress can legislate a permanent withdrawal."
Many environmental groups, as well as sportsmen's organizations, expended considerable effort to oppose the renewal of the mining leases. Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, for example, celebrated the Agriculture and Interior decision to deny the mining leases.
"The Boundary Waters are one of the nation's most iconic landscapes. To even consider defiling this pristine watershed is ludicrous. We thank the Obama administration for taking bold action in support of the Boundary Waters, and we look forward to working with the Trump administration to conserve this irreplaceable region in perpetuity."
However, others are not pleased with the decision. Rep. Rick Nolan (R-Minn.) said that "Minnesota's Iron Range got a real slap in the face and a punch in the gut by Washington bureaucrats."
"This law established the area as predominantly non-motorized, taking millions of acres of lands out of valuable production," Nolan said. "The law explicitly reserved lands outside of the wilderness in the Superior National Forest for forestry, and management plans were established that included mining and mineral exploration, which was designated a 'desirable activity'."
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