The U.S. Forest Service on Friday made formal its proposal to call a two-year timeout on new mining around the edges of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
The Forest Service plan, announced last month at the same time the federal government denied critical mineral leases to the Twin Metals copper project near Ely, will prevent any new mining projects or exploration on 234,328 acres in the Superior National Forest.
The proposal was published in the Federal Register.
The Forest Service says the land and water immediately around the BWCAW may be too fragile to withstand potential contamination from copper-nickel mining.
Friday’s action triggers a 90-day public comment period on agency’s plan to withdraw the land from the federal minerals leasing program.
Public comments made during the period may help sway the secretary of the interior, who oversees federal mining rules, on whether the mining prohibition should be extended for 20 years.
A public meeting to accept comments on the plan will be held March 16 at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center.
Copper mining opponents and supporters on Friday urged their followers to get involved.
"Americans value the Wilderness for recreation, fishing, and hunting. It is a major economic driver for northeastern Minnesota," said Becky Rom, national chair of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, in a statement. "Sulfide-ore copper mining near the Boundary Waters is a grave threat. For over a century, citizens from all walks of life have repeatedly worked together to address threats and challenges in an effort to gain permanent protection for the Boundary Waters. Thanks to today’s announcement, we have an opportunity to determine the fate of the Boundary Waters by ensuring that decisions are based on science, that the focus is on the Boundary Waters, and that Americans have a voice in the decision. We encourage everyone to participate in the environmental review process."
But copper industry officials said the agency move was unfounded.
“Twin Metals is strongly opposed to the federal government’s proposal to withdraw more than 230,000 acres of federal land and minerals in Northeast Minnesota from future leasing, exploration and development,” the company said in a statement. “The withdrawal of federal minerals from future development, and the related impacts of negating future development of state and private minerals, will have a devastating impact on the region’s economy, eliminating the promise of thousands of good-paying jobs and billions of dollars in local investment.”
U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Crosby, who represents the region, called the Forest Service proposal “misguided.”
“Make no mistake, this is an anti-mining tactic and waste of taxpayer dollars,” Nolan said in a statement Friday. “Without being able to assess an actual project, the Forest Service’s plan is harmful to the environmental review process and should be rejected by new U.S. Department of Agriculture leadership.”
Nolan said it will be “virtually impossible” for the government to measure the impact of any commercial activity, including mining, without knowing the full scope of technology or pollution abatement features that the mines might use to prevent damage.
The congressman also said he will work to reverse the agency decision.
“I will continue working with my colleagues in the new Congress and with the new Administration to ensure that we allow all mining initiatives to proceed through the proper rigorous and thorough process - using science, facts and technology to guide our decisions, while maintaining the BWCA’s water quality and the protection of its fish and wildlife,” Nolan said.
In addition to the public meeting, comments can be sent to: Connie Cummins, Forest Supervisor, Superior National Forest, 8901 Grand Avenue Place, Duluth, MN 55808-1122 or emailed to email@example.com or faxed to (218) 626-4398.
For more information, go to www.fs.usda.gov/projects/superior/landmanagement/projects and click on “developing proposal.”