Some casts just feel too picture-perfect to produce—an expectation likely borne of experience with fishing busy waters where everyone hits the obvious, great-looking spots. It was with that skepticism that I landed my big silver spoon in the wash of a tall waterfall clattering down a sheer granite mountain face into the long, narrow, backcountry lake.
Apparently, however, when you’re six portages back into the largest American wilderness east of the Mississippi, perfect casts do come true. A big pike boiled on the hardware not a full second after it hit the water. Sepia flanks flashed dull in the tannic water as we wrestled the old Esox into our ultralight fiberglass canoe. Our echoes faded quickly into an immense silence only embellished by loons and falling water.
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area was among a small group of landscapes designated as the United States’ first formal wilderness areas under the original Wilderness Act of 1964, although portions were set aside from development as early as 1902. The current 1.1 million-acre dimensions and management plan were settled in a separate 1978 bill. Signed into law by Jimmy Carter, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act prohibited logging, most motorboat and snowmobile travel, development, and mining in the 150-mile swath of northeastern Minnesota along its border with Ontario and the Quetico Provincial and Voyageurs National parks.
More than 1,100 lakes permeate the densely forested, rugged landscape, draining through creeks, rivers, bogs, and waterfalls into three different drainages—toward the Mississippi and Gulf of Mexico, the Great Lakes and Atlantic, and Hudson Bay and the Arctic Ocean. Most of Boundary Waters and the surrounding Superior National Forest lie at the headwaters of that northbound watershed following the Rainy River. So do an estimated four billion tons of copper-nickel sulfide ore, one of the largest undeveloped deposits on Earth.
A proposed mine site sits upstream of the bulk of the Boundary Waters on the Superior National Forest, about three miles from the border. Under federal jurisdiction in the national forest, the Twin Metals mine has been a political hot potato in recent years. A subsidiary of Chilean mining giant Antofagasta and its billionaire owner Andrónico Luksic, Twin Metals’ mineral lease expired in 2014 and they sought renewal from the Obama Administration, which rejected the idea that the there was any right to automatic renewal. The administration placed a moratorium on mining in the national forest for two years while it undertook an environmental analysis of the potential effects on the surrounding ecosystems and considered implementing a 20-year mineral rights withdrawal.
Shortly after the Trump Administration took office in 2017, Twin Metals sued the federal government for the suspension of its leases. In 2018, the Interior Department renewed the leases and shelved the environmental study. (You can read my article in Backcountry Journal about that process here.) The company submitted plans for an underground mine and aboveground tailings storage facility in 2019 that were under consideration until the Biden Administration took office. In October 2021, the Interior and Agriculture departments announced they would reinstate the previous environmental study and again consider a 20-year mineral withdrawal covering 225,378 acres of the Rainy River Watershed, a smaller portion than before, triggering a public comment period that closes soon on Jan. 19, 2022. Only Congress can institute a permanent withdrawal of mining rights, and legislation was introduced by a group of Republican and Democratic representatives last year to do just that. Read our article on that bill here.
Mining is as much a tradition is this region as backcountry canoe travel. Taconite ore from the Iron Range long fueled the local job market, economy, and the steel mills of Duluth and Detroit, and many locals would like to see that economic vitality restored. However, conservationists frequently point out that the sulfide minerals modern miners are seeking can be much more environmentally hazardous than the Taconite extracted by previous generations. When exposed to air and water, sulfide minerals create sulfuric acid and a nasty cocktail of compounds collectively known as acid mine drainage, which often seep into nearby waterbodies and kill most living things within them for years to come.
Opponents say mine development would imperil one of the largest and most popular pristine areas in the country, which produces an estimated $100 million economy from outdoors recreation on its own. Lukas Leaf is a MeatEater culinary contributor and the executive director of Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters, a hunting- and fishing-focused conservation nonprofit fighting to prevent the mines. He says that the country’s most popular wilderness is not the place for a game of Russian roulette.
“We applaud the administration’s commitment to completing the study of potential effects of sulfide-ore copper mining near our critical wilderness and for considering a 20-year withdrawal of forest lands around the BWCA,” Leaf said. “Now is the time for hunters and anglers to engage in this process for the preservation of the BWCA. Public lands and waters belong to all Americans, and we must protect those lands and waters to ensure that our future generations can experience them as we have. Our priceless backcountry spaces, like the Boundary Waters, are no exception.”
Lukas has spent his whole life hunting whitetails and ruffed grouse, fishing for lake trout, pike, walleye, and smallmouth bass, and foraging fungi and plants in the canoe area wilderness. He’s calling on fellow hunters and anglers to support this effort led by local sportsmen and women to ensure those opportunities are available for generations to come.
“Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters has long supported the reinstatement and completion of the mineral withdrawal process upstream of the Boundary Waters,” he said. “A scientific study, with complete transparency, opportunities for public comment, and thorough interagency review is the best path forward toward conserving America’s most visited wilderness. Please join us in asking the administration to do the right thing. Send in your comment before Jan. 19.”
Feature image via Captured Creative.