This week, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced legislation in the House that would permanently protect the Boundary Waters Canoe Area from sulfide mines proposed to be sited upstream of the famed Northern Minnesota wilderness. If enacted, H.R. 5598, the Boundary Waters Wilderness Protection and Pollution Prevention Act, would withdraw more than 200,000 acres of the Superior National Forest within the Rainy River Watershed from current and future mining leases.
Introduced by Reps. Betty McCollum (D-MN) and Francis Rooney (R-FL) with co-sponsors Reps. Fred Upton (R-MI), Dean Phillips (D-MN), Alan Lowenthal (D-CA), and Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), this bill addresses the grave concern among sportsmen nationwide that sulfide mining activities on the Boundary Waters southern border could imperil the more than 2,000 pristine lakes and streams within the canoe area.
“A peer-reviewed study of water quality impacts from 14 operating United States copper sulfide mines found 100 percent of the mines experienced pipeline spills or accidental releases,” the bill’s authors wrote in its text. “Thirteen mines experienced failures of water collection and treatment systems to control contaminated mine seepage resulting in significant negative water quality impacts.”
Any leak from the proposed Twin Metals Mine (a subsidiary of Chilean mining giant Antofagasta) could have devastating effects on the world-class walleye, pike, smallmouth, and lake trout fisheries in the BWCA downstream. Another nearby mine on state of Minnesota lands, known as PolyMet, falls outside this federal jurisdiction. Both have been moving toward permitting this year.
“The Twin Metals proposal—developing a mine south of the Boundary Waters watershed when everything flows north—makes no sense,” said Backcountry Hunters & Anglers President and CEO Land Tawney. “The outdoor recreation industry in northern Minnesota provides certainty for the local economy. This mine would deliver only short-term economic gain followed by a lifetime of harmful impacts to fish and wildlife. We commend this bipartisan effort to permanently protect a landscape that provides unmatched hunting and fishing opportunities.”
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area was written into the text of the original wilderness act in 1964 and expanded under another law in 1978. At 1.1 million acres, the it’s the largest designated wilderness area east of the Mississippi and it is the most visited wilderness in the entire country. In 2016, the Forest Service found “unacceptable the inherent potential risk that development of a regionally-untested copper-nickel sulfide ore mine within the same watershed as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness” and proposed a 20-year mineral withdrawal on federal lands within the Rainy River watershed, pending an environmental assessment. Twenty months into that study, the Trump Administration abruptly cancelled it and has refused to make any of the findings public. President Trump has publicly declared his support for these mines on several occasions.
“The Boundary Waters is a world-class backcountry destination that provides some of the best fishing and hunting the world has to offer and is in urgent need of the same protections Yellowstone received in 2019,” said Lukas Leaf, executive director of Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters. “This legislation is the next step to ensuring America’s most-visited wilderness, along with the public land and water surrounding it, have guaranteed protection for our future generations. We urge all outdoor enthusiasts from across the nation to contact Congress and express their support for this forward-looking bill.”
MeatEater’s conservation director, Ryan Callaghan, shares a similar sentiment. “The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Rainy River watershed not only represent phenomenal recreational opportunities, but they are also one of the greatest stores of clean water in the U.S. I don’t care if you like fishing and canoeing or not—you need clean water.”
Feature image via Captured Creative.