After being diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in October, Joseph Goldstein got a visit from the Make-A-Wish Foundation, the folks who try to bring some sunshine into the lives of kids with potentially fatal health issues.
Joseph could have asked for just about anything and it would have been granted. Past recipients have asked for trips to Disney World, swimming pools, ponies and chances to meet famous athletes or actors.
But the 13-year-old Springfield, Ill., boy made a far different "wish.'' He asked Make-A-Wish to send him to Washington to lobby Congress and Obama administration officials against copper mining near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
So Joseph is in the nation's capital this week meeting with some of the most influential people in government. On Tuesday he met with Sally Jewell, U.S. Secretary of the Interior, and Thomas Tidwell, chief of the U.S. Forest Service, as well as U.S. Reps. Timothy Walz, D-Minn. and Erik Paulsen, R-Minn.
"The Boundary Waters are a very important, very special place. And if they are destroyed by sulfide ore mining, we'll never get it back," Joseph told the News Tribune in a phone interview Tuesday.
Joseph has been to lots of interesting places over the years, tagging along with his parents who love to travel. But he said the BWCAW is by far his favorite. He likes the campfires and the fishing and sleeping in a tent and being surrounded by fresh air and clean water.
He recalled one special night on a rocky point on Lac La Croix where his family "stayed up all night" watching a meteor shower on a cloudless night. With no bugs, he added.
"It's just so cool. There's no place else like it,'' he said.
This week in Washington, Joseph is paired with Ely outfitter and fishing guide Jason Zabokrtsky, also an ardent opponent of copper mining in the BWCAW watershed.
"Joseph had one week off of chemo and this is that week. So this was the one chance to make it happen," Zabokrtsky told the News Tribune by telephone from Washington. "Joseph is a very special kid. From the first time I met him, when he was six or seven, I thought, this kid is going to be a U.S. senator some day."
Today and Thursday Joseph and Jason are set to meet with U.S. Sens Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota Democrats, and Dick Durbin, D-Ill, and U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn. And Joseph will be part of the Save The Boundary Waters group campaign to deliver 60,000 petitions to Congress against copper mining in the BWCAW area.
"So far it's gone really well. The people I've met with have been very supportive. They want to learn more about the issue. They said they want to protect the Boundary Waters," Joseph said. "I think they have respected my wish."
Zabokrtsky has been guiding the Goldstein family for the past seven years on trips into the BWCAW. Each summer the family returns more energized about the excursion than the year before, Zabokrtsky said.
"The Boundary Waters has become a big part of who that family is, especially Joseph," Zabokrtsky said.
The subject of the lobbying effort is copper-nickel mining in general, with geologists finding huge deposits of the valuable minerals underground all along the southern edge of the BWCAW. More specifically, the proposed Twin Metals copper mine near Ely would be a large underground project along the Kawishiwi River just outside the wilderness.
Critics say the economic benefits aren't worth the potential environmental destruction if the mine somehow produces acidic mine runoff. And they say that runoff could leach heavy metals and spur toxic mercury in water that runs back north, through the Boundary Waters and into Canada.
Supporters of the mine counter that mining already is prohibited in the federal wilderness boundaries. And they say a copper mine can operate safely on the edge of the BWCAW, providing years of high-paying jobs, taxes and royalties for the region.
Twin Metals Minnesota spokesman Bob McFarlin says the predictions of environmental harm are unfounded. The company is "fully committed to protecting Minnesota's wilderness, natural environment and recreational resources," he said in a statement earlier this month, noting that the mine ultimately must meet "all state and federal environmental standards in order to be approved."
"And, to be very clear, the TMM project will not pollute the waters of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness," McFarlin added.
Joseph, however, isn't as sure.
"I don't want to take that chance,'' he said
Paul Schurke, Ely outfitter, international explorer and copper mining critic, said the Goldsteins have adopted a wilderness ethic as Joseph has grown up. In addition to annual summer trips, they also travel to Ely in winter to trek with Schurke's dog teams into the BWCAW
"They are just an extraordinary family who are all about wilderness," Schurke told the News Tribune. "But, even then, Joseph blew us away when he made this wish. It's hard to imagine a kid that age, going through what he is, being that committed to the Boundary Waters."
Joseph's mother, Kemia Sarraf, said who is accompanying her son on the trip, said Tuesday that the trip had to be organized quickly based on the chemo treatments. So far the family has paid for the trip up front but she expects Make-A-Wish to help as time allows.She said Joseph is holding up well in Washington even with the busy schedule. She said that this week is his only break from aggressive chemotherapy treatments, now in their fifth of 12 months. The treatments will keep going for three years in various stages.
If detected early, and with aggressive treatment, the type of cancer Joseph has can have a 70 percent survival rate, she said
"He's a very strong boy, both emotionally and physically, so he was in great shape to fight this going in," she said.
With any luck the family plans to be back in the BWCAW this summer. Joseph's dad, Jeff Goldstein, is back home in Illinois with his brothers, building a cedar strip canoe for the family's next trip north.
"That will be cool," Joseph said. "I can't wait."