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Sportsman's View: Clean water more valuable than copper

Each fall I'm privileged to hunt, hike, camp, and paddle in northern Minnesota's Superior National Forest and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. This year, while driving north from my hometown of Grand Rapids during the first week of rifle deer season, I saw an outsized political ad/banner along the highway: "Unleash the economic engine," it stated, a reference to the controversial sulfide-ore copper mining proposals by foreign-owned mining conglomerates (Twin Metals and PolyMet).

David LienA recent analysis by a pair of Harvard economists examined dozens of different scenarios and concluded that Ely's current development path, based on outdoor recreation, would generate more local income and job growth than a new sulfide mine. This proved true in 69 of 72 scenarios examined, as explained in an Ely-datelined story in September in the Timberjay newspaper.

Transitioning Ely back to a mining economy "leads to a boom-bust cycle in all the scenarios we examine, in which the region is in the end left worse off economically," the economists determined, according to the story.

The Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board already figured this out. "We've spent millions of dollars chasing smokestack companies and it just hasn't worked out," IRRRB Commissioner Mark Phillips was quoted as saying in the story. It's one reason Phillips has turned away from the agency's traditional focus on manufacturing recruitment to one that puts more resources toward improving quality of life in Iron Range communities.

As I traveled north, along the North Shore of Lake Superior, I saw another community wisely promoting its proximity to "four state parks." According to statistics recently released by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Activity, nationwide, the outdoor-recreation economy accounted for 2.2 percent of GDP ($412 billion) in 2016. In comparison, mining activities accounted for 0.3 percent of GDP ($61 billion).

Foreign mining companies also have been pushing sulfide mining proposals near Yellowstone National Park. As a result, in October, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke signed a 20-year mineral withdrawal that will protect 30,000 acres north of Yellowstone from new mining claims. Isn't the Boundary Waters "Minnesota's Yellowstone," as U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen, a Republican from Minnesota's Hennepin County, said in the Star Tribune in September?

The Superior National Forest houses 20 percent of the freshwater in the entire national forest system, Spencer Shaver of Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters noted in August.

"We need to follow the science," Minnesota Gov.-elect Tim Walz said in August in the Star Tribune in reference to a potential mine operated by Twin Metals, which is owned by Antofagasta of Chile. "If it puts our natural resources at risk, no, I will not support that."

"When exposed to air and water, sulfide ore in which copper and other minerals occur creates sulfuric acid and generates heavy metals and other pollutants. This is sometimes called 'acid mine drainage,'" Tom Tidwell, the chief of the U.S. Forest Service from 2009 to 2017, wrote in a commentary in the News Tribune on Nov. 4. "The vast network of waterways in the Boundary Waters region makes it particularly vulnerable to acid mine drainage. ... It would be impossible to contain pollution given the interconnectedness of the waters."

Unfortunately, on Sept. 6, the administration of President Donald Trump canceled a study on the need for a 20-year sulfide mining ban in the Boundary Waters watershed.

Sitting in a deer stand overlooking a gurgling, crystal-clear stream flowing through the Superior National Forest, watching a small flock of black-capped chickadees (and one downy woodpecker) landing on my boots, rifle stock and barrel, it seemed clear to me that clean water is more valuable than copper. The "economic engine" being pushed by some misinformed politicians is more akin to an economic wrecking ball in disguise.

David Lien of Colorado Springs, Colo., and formerly of Grand Rapids, is a former Air Force officer and the founder and former chairman of Minnesota Backcountry Hunters & Anglers ( He's the author of "Hunting for Experience II: Tales of Hunting & Habitat Conservation." In 2014, he was recognized by Field & Stream as a "Hero of Conservation."