Clean water or mining pollution for the nation's favorite wilderness?

Clean water or mining pollution for the nation's favorite wilderness?
© Wikimedia Commons

When you picture wilderness, the first thing that comes to mind may be the shoreline of a clean, unpolluted lake. Which is reasonable given the protections we provide to national wilderness areas.

But that is likely to change if the Trump administration and Twin Metals Minnesota have their way. Twin Metals is a mining firm owned by Chilean conglomerate Antofagasta.

The aggressive push by the Trump administration to force approval of a sulfide-ore copper and nickel mine in northern Minnesota’s Superior National Forest will almost certainly pollute the waters of the nation’s third largest National Forest and vast Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

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The administration recently announced renewal of two mining leases for Twin Metals.

If pollution weren’t bad enough, reporting by the Wall Street Journal and more recently by the New York Times reveals a business connection between the Trump family and the billionaire family that controls the Chilean mining conglomerate. The firm has aggressively lobbied the administration to approve the Minnesota copper mine.

No doubt, jobs and the economy are important. But if we want to look at this issue through a business lens, let’s remember that our wild public lands are vital to the U.S. economy. Outdoor recreation produces hundreds of billions in consumer spending nationally and about $16 billion in Minnesota alone. It sustains roughly 140,000 jobs in the state known as the “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” which underscores the value of its wild waterways.

For generations, the Boundary Waters has been a high adventure mecca for millions of Americans from across the nation, including girls and boys attending the popular YMCA and Scouting camps there. That area contains more than 1,000 lakes left by receding glaciers and 1,200 miles of canoe routes that draw visitors from around the world. Its lakes are so clean that visitors can dip their cups to drink. 

These interconnected waters are also uniquely vulnerable to mine-related pollution.

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Rep. Betty McCollumBetty Louise McCollumMinnesota lieutenant governor, Native Americans to protest Washington Redskins 'racist' name DeLauro enters race to succeed Lowey as Appropriations chief Trump impeachment calls snowball, putting pressure on Pelosi MORE (D-Minn.) has provided a strong voice of opposition to this mining project, but this fight would benefit immensely if Senators Amy KlobucharAmy Jean Klobuchar 2020 Democrats demand action on guns after Santa Clarita shooting Hillicon Valley: Federal inquiry opened into Google health data deal | Facebook reports millions of post takedowns | Microsoft shakes up privacy debate | Disney plus tops 10M sign-ups in first day Federal inquiry opened into Google health data deal MORE and Tina SmithTina Flint SmithDemocrats will win back the Senate majority in 2020, all thanks to President Trump On The Money: Fed faces crossroads as it weighs third rate cut | Dem presses Mnuchin on 'alleged rampant corruption' | Boeing chief faces anger at hearing | Trouble for House deal on Ex-Im Bank Democrats renew push for contractor back pay from government shutdown MORE were more engaged.

The dangers of this type of mining concern me given my experience on nearly every side of this issue. I have served as head of both the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. I also earned graduate degrees in aquatic ecology and fisheries. Over my days in the Superior National Forest, I developed a deep appreciation for the Boundary Waters — the most-visited of our nation’s protected wilderness areas.

I grew up and now live in the northern Midwest where local communities depend on jobs in commodity extraction like mining and logging as well recreation and tourism jobs. I’ve seen the boom and bust of the extraction industries.

How should we balance these interests on the public lands that belong to all of us? The first Forest Service Chief over 100 years ago said the key is managing for “the greatest good of the greatest number for the long run.”

Let’s apply that logic to this issue. While nearly everyone understands the value of clean water, fewer know that we get much of that water from our forests, which is one of the key reasons why we protect them. The vegetation and soil in forests purify the water that millions of Americans depend on for drinking as well as fishing, canoeing and other outdoor recreation.

So now, as we see clear evidence of climate change, species die-offs and other stressors degrading our forests, we need to be very cautious and responsible about where we allow polluting industries to operate on or near our shared public lands and waters.

Polls of Minnesotans and comments to the Forest Service reveal overwhelming public opposition to the Twin Metals mine — and for good reason. In 2016, the Forest Service rejected plans for this mining operation and proposed a 20-year ban on mining there pending a comprehensive, scientific study. But the Trump administration has ignored that Forest Service recommendation and halted the study before it was completed.

In May, a group of 33 retired Forest Service professionals who worked as hydrologists, biologists and resource managers in the Superior National Forest and who represent a combined total of 988 years of experience, delivered a letter to the Secretaries of Agriculture and Interior opposing the mine. They pointed out that acid mine drainage from hardrock mines, like the one planned by Twin Metals, creates sulfuric acid, which leaches harmful metals such as copper, zinc, lead, cadmium, iron and nickel.

History demonstrates that the vast majority of copper mines fail to contain the wastes they produce. In their letter, the Forest Service scientists stated, “there is no mine plan or design feature that eliminates the risk.”

There are many places where mining can be done safely with minimal damage to the surrounding land and water. The mine proposed Twin Metals in the Superior National Forest adjacent to the Boundary Waters wilderness is not one of those places.

Mike Dombeck was chief of the United States Forest Service from 1997 to 2001 and Acting Director of the Bureau of Land Management from 1994 to 1997. He currently serves as Executive Director of the David Smith Post-Doctoral Conservation Research Fellowship and lives near Stevens Point, Wis.