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Interior secretary touts BWCAW as special place

U.S. Interior Sec. Sally Jewell gave a speech this week on the value of federal lands and mentioned the Boundary Waters as an example of a place that should be reserved from the impacts of development like mining.

Jewell mentioned the Minnesota wilderness in the same sentence with Badger-Two Medicine in Montana and the Roan Plateau in Colorado — both places where the federal government recently rescinded leases and denied oil and gas drilling projects.

The secretary — whose agency heads the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency and other federal bodies — listed the BWCAW as an example of places where the federal government should take stock in environmental values and "re-examine'' whether it makes sense to develop nearby.

The BLM currently is deciding whether to renew mining leases for the proposed Twin Metals copper mine on the edge of the 1.9 million-acre BWCAW and in the watershed that runs into the federal wilderness.

Jewell's speech Tuesday at the National Geographic Society in Washington was touted as the Obama administration's call for a major federal land management "course correction" to protect federal land, water and wildlife from development and for future generations.

The course correction includes rethinking mining and fossil fuel leases issued by past administrations.

"... we also have some work left to re-examine whether decisions made in prior administrations properly considered where it makes sense to develop and where it doesn't,'' Jewell said. "Or where science is helping us better understand the value of the land and water and potential impacts of development. Places like Badger Two-Medicine in Montana, or the Boundary Waters in Minnesota, or the Roan Plateau in Colorado."

In November the Obama administration pulled 17 of the 19 leases the government had issued in 2008 letting the Bill Barrett Corp. drill on the Roan Plateau and reimbursed the Denver company $47.6 million it had paid for them. Jewell at the time said it was a mistake for past federal administrators to ever offer the leases in such a special place.

Environmental groups had been battling to protect the 54,000-acre plateau from becoming an industrial zone.

The Badger-Two Medicine area is surrounded by Glacier National Park, the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, the Blackfeet Indian Reservation and the Lewis and Clark National Forest. In November the Interior Department canceled leases that might have allowed a New Orleans company to drill for oil on land the Blackfeet consider sacred.

Federal officials said the original leases failed key provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act and thus were void.

It's not clear if Jewell was tipping her hand on which way the Interior Department will go as the agency reconsiders mining leases for Twin Metals. The company, which is owned by Chilean mining giant Antofagasta, wants to build a large underground mine along the Kawishiwi River southeast of Ely. But it needs several key federal leases to get at the copper, nickel and other valuable metals underground.

The leases held by Twin Metals originally were issued to other companies in 1966 before NEPA was in place. Last month the Bureau of Land Management announced it has the legal authority to deny the renewal of the Twin Metals leases, although no formal decision on the renewal has been made.

Bob McFarlin, spokesman for Twin Metals, declined to comment on Jewell's speech. But Frank Ongaro, executive director of the Mining Minnesota copper industry group, said it's not a coincidence that Jewell mentioned the BWCAW just as the BLM is deciding Twin Metals leases.

"It appears that the Obama administration is moving to withdraw federal mineral (leases) in all of the Rainy River watershed,'' Ongaro told the News Tribune Wednesday. "It appears they have already made a decision, based on the input of the elitist Twin Cities environmentalists, to unilaterally end economic development in that part of northern Minnesota."

Ongaro said that, because of the sizeable federal Superior National Forest land holdings in the region, a federal mineral lease withdrawal will be a "de facto moratorium on all mining in the Rainy River watershed. It's a unilateral, back-door move without consulting with the communities that are most impacted."

U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan last week mentioned the issue at a mining conference, saying copper mining should be allowed outside the BWCAW boundary based on promises made during the battle over formation of the wilderness. Members of the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools are in Washington this week urging lawmakers to support renewing the federal leases to allow Twin Metals to move forward.

Supporters of the Twin Metals proposal note that it is outside the BWCAW boundaries and that mining is already prohibited inside the wilderness. They also say the project can move forward without harming waters that run through the BWCAW.

Opponents say the possibility of the mining project fouling waters of the BWCAW outweighs any economic benefit for the state.

Becky Rom, national chair of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, said Jewell's recognition of the need to study "iconic places like the Boundary Waters Wilderness is critical to guaranteeing we fulfill our obligation to protect the natural wonders entrusted to our care for generations to come."

Jewell's speech, "The Next 100 Years of American Conservation,'' was given as part of National Parks Week events.