The Wild Waters Music Fest to Save the Boundary Waters at Duluth’s Bayfront Festival Park is set to bring together Minnesota musicians and audience members opposed to Twin Metals’ proposed copper-nickel mine on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness on Friday.
But Save the Boundary Waters, the group hosting the event, is notably silent on Minnesota’s other copper-nickel project: PolyMet, the first mine of its kind to earn permits in the state.
That’s because PolyMet sits in the St. Louis River watershed, which empties into Lake Superior, while Twin Metals, 15 miles north but on the other side of the Laurentian Divide, sits within the Rainy River Watershed, which is shared with the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Duluth for Clean Water, a group that opposes both PolyMet and Twin Metals, noted the irony of hosting a concert at Bayfront Festival Park, which sits on the shores of the Duluth Harbor and downstream from PolyMet, if the group that hosts the concert doesn’t take a position on PolyMet. It’s an area the group said PolyMet would pollute once operational.
“Watershed concerts on the shores of gichigami should advocate for Lake Superior too,” the group tweeted Tuesday, using the Ojibwe word for Lake Superior. “Thank you, *amazing* bands, for coming to Duluth! We are all connected. We humbly invite you to recognize our downstream struggle as well.”
Save the Boundary Waters has not actively fought PolyMet because it’s focused on threats to the BWCAW, said Tom Landwehr, executive director of Save the Boundary Waters and the former commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Landwehr was commissioner when the DNR granted PolyMet its permit to mine last year.
“There’s no threat to the Boundary Waters from PolyMet,” Landwehr said. “There’s a lot of good issues out there but the organization’s focus has always been on the Boundary Waters.”
Duluth for Clean Water board member John Doberstein said Save the Boundary Waters should be fighting PolyMet because its approval was the copper-nickel mining industry’s “foot in the door” in Minnesota.
“We may disagree about strategy on stopping PolyMet first in order to prevent Twin Metals from following,” Doberstein said. “But we also need to work together on protecting all watersheds, and the one is not more important than the other.”
Supporting or remaining neutral on PolyMet while opposing Twin Metals is not limited to environmental organizations. Politicians have also walked the line.
Former Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, eventually supported the PolyMet project after years of letting the project proposal move through the DNR and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (both agencies eventually did grant PolyMet its permits in the final weeks of the Dayton administration). But Dayton was fervently against Twin Metals, going as far as to deny the company access to statelands to do advance work for its proposed mine.
“My concern is for the inherent risks associated with any mining operation in close proximity to the BWCAW,” Dayton wrote in a 2016 letter to Twin Metals.
Gov. Tim Walz, also a Democrat, told the News Tribune in March that he doesn’t think Dayton’s ban would hold up in court, and would not be continuing it. Instead, he said Twin Metals “should back off. I think they should take a hard look at this.”
But he’s been supportive of PolyMet. During his first seven months as governor, he’s defended PolyMet’s permits despite numerous legal challenges. And while representing Minnesota's 1st district in Congress, Walz supported a bill that would have expedited a land exchange between PolyMet and the U.S. Forest Service. At the same time, he also opposed a bill that would have reinstated expired Twin Metals mineral leases that the Obama administration did not renew.
Like Dayton, Walz said the different location of each proposed mine has led him to support one project while cautiously approaching the other.
“I would fall on the side of being very cautious because of the difference of location,” Walz said of Twin Metals in March. He added later, “I just think it is a different set of circumstances that warrants more research and more looks at this than PolyMet.”
Concert to fundraise, raise awareness
As of Tuesday, 3,200 tickets for the concert had been sold, Landwehr said, with $3 of each ticket being donated to Save the Boundary Waters.
“Initially our expectation was if all we did was break even but we get the word out to a new audience, we would consider that a success,” Landwehr said.
Alan Sparhawk, who will be performing Friday with Duluth-based band Low, echoed that. He said raising awareness was the most important part of Friday’s show.
“Getting information out there really is powerful,” he said.
While the artists are getting paid, Sparhawk said the groups are doing it at a lower cost than usual. It’s worth it, he said.
“The caliber of musicians that we’re getting up from Minneapolis normally do not come out and do a show for this amount,” Sparhawk said. “It’s an important enough issue.”
While Doberstein of Duluth For Clean Water said people opposed to both PolyMet and Twin Metals would not be staging a formal boycott of the concert, he expected people would be more excited about the artists playing the show had Save the Boundary Waters also opposed PolyMet.
“I do know a lot of people just aren't going to spend the money and go there because we really would love to have that organization's support for the protection of our waters,” Doberstein said.
If you go
What: Wild Waters Music Fest to Save the Boundary Waters
Where: 350 Harbor Drive, Duluth
Cost: Tickets are $33 at savetheboundarywaters.org/wildwaters
3:30 p.m. Doors open
4:30 p.m. War Bonnet
5:05 p.m. The Lioness
5:40 p.m. deM atlaS
6:15 p.m. Jeremy Messersmith
7:05 p.m. Low
8:00 p.m. Cloud Cult
8:40 p.m. DJ Keezy
8:55 p.m. Doomtree
9:55 p.m. Atmosphere