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A Sportsman's View: Bipartisan opposition growing to copper mining in northern Minnesota

David Lien

Recently, Minnesota U.S. Reps. Rick Nolan and Tom Emmer pushed a late-night amendment through the House of Representatives to help facilitate sulfide-ore copper mining in the same watershed that includes the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness ("Emmer, Nolan add amendment to defund mining study," Sept. 7).

Passage of the amendment "opens the door to circumventing the review process" currently being undertaken to determine if sulfide-ore copper mining is safe in the watershed, as the Star Tribune of Minneapolis reported. The amendment still has to pass the Senate, and bipartisan political opposition is growing.

Minnesota Republican U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen joined Democratic U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum in opposing the amendment from Nolan and Emmer. "The public process that is underway after hundreds of thousands of people have weighed in with their comments should not be ignored and tossed aside," Paulsen said on the House floor, according to the Minneapolis newspaper. He called the Boundary Waters the Minnesota version of Yellowstone National Park and described it as home to some of his best personal memories.

Similar mining proposals are threatening Yellowstone. Two companies want to explore for gold and other minerals north of the park. Mining opponents have argued the proposed mines would industrialize wild areas and harm streams that drain into the Yellowstone River, a popular trout-fishing destination that draws anglers from around the world. In response, during late August, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced his support for a 20-year mining ban, according to Yellowstone Insider.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat from Montana, drafted the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act, which would permanently withdraw the area from mining claims. Currently, federal officials are completing a two-year review of mining on the more than 30,000 acres just north of the park. It seems clear to both Republican and Democratic politicians from the Yellowstone region and in Washington, D.C., that these proposed mines could do more harm than good to local economies.

"Copper kills jobs," Steve Piragis, owner of Piragis Northwoods Company in Ely, told a crowd in Duluth earlier this year, according to Minnesota Public Radio. "In Ely, we have hundreds of people who are employed in the business of fresh water, clean water that brings people to us."

As determined by the National Wildlife Federation, no sulfide-ore copper-nickel mine has ever operated and closed without polluting nearby waters.

Former Vice President Walter Mondale seems to agree, saying in a Star Tribune commentary in March 2016 that, "Sulfide-ore mining has never — never — been undertaken without serious environmental consequences. Sulfide-ore mining is dangerous everywhere and most dangerous in wet environments. And the Boundary Waters is nothing if not wet. The consequences of such mining are perpetual. They will surely outlive all of us and will just as surely outlive the mining company's pledges, promises and sureties."

Gov. Mark Dayton also supports the U.S. Forest Service decision to keep mining away from the BWCAW, as was detailed in the News Tribune's Feb 2 story, "BWCAW supporters rally against Nolan."

The governor said, according to a Mesabi Daily News report, that the proposed Twin Metals sulfide mine "was bad for Ely, bad for Minnesota, and bad for the Boundary Waters."

Rep. Paulsen added in the Star Tribune, "We owe it to future generations to understand the impact copper-nickel mining poses to Minnesota's most precious water and land before we put it at risk."

In the words of President Theodore Roosevelt, America's greatest hunter-conservationist who established the Superior National Forest in 1909: "I believe we are past the stage of national existence when we could look on complacently at the individual who skinned the land and was content for the sake of three years' profit for himself to leave a desert for the children of those who were to inherit the soil."

David Lien of Colorado Springs, Colo., and formerly of Grand Rapids, is a former Air Force officer, co-chairman of the Minnesota Backcountry Hunters & Anglers (backcountryhunters.org), and the author of "Hunting for Experience II: Tales of Hunting & Habitat Conservation."

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