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Conservationist's View: Copper mining puts clean water, wilderness at risk

"Timid souls neither know victory nor defeat." It is fitting that President Teddy Roosevelt shared these words in his 1910 "Man-in-the-Arena" speech. Roosevelt was a bold leader who advocated for a uniquely American approach to protecting wildlands and wildlife.

Here in Minnesota, he set aside the Superior National Forest (in 1909), which lead to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, a vast expanse of interconnected waterways, wetlands, and wildlands.

Unfortunately, the administration of President Donald Trump recently renewed controversial and contested sulfide (i.e., copper-nickel) mining mineral leases in the Boundary Waters' watershed, jeopardizing a world-class wilderness ("Feds propose renewing Twin Metals leases," Dec. 20).

So many debates about public lands and the environment are complicated and arcane. However, sulfide mining boils down to something simple: clean water.

Most of us support responsible development. However, development that comes at the expense of our clean water is not responsible.

"Our American public lands and waters are valuable beyond measure," Backcountry Hunters and Anglers President and CEO Land Tawney wrote in December. "We do not want industrial interests dictating their management, and we will not stand for an administration that values the priorities of big business ... over the will of the citizenry."

While in Rapid City, S.D., on Dec. 1, I visited the Museum of Geology at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology.

"Many sulfide minerals are beautiful, ... but don't be fooled; the amount of beauty is matched by the amount of toxic elements they ... contain," one interpretive display explained. "Often in geology classes, students are taught to lick certain rocks and minerals to identify them. These are not those minerals.

"Many sulfides are toxic, meaning if you were to lick them (or even lick your fingers after touching them) they will act as a poison in your body," the display further stated. "Sulfides that are broken down by water often carry toxic metals into local water and soils or become sulfuric acid, a colorless and odorless corrosive substance that is highly destructive to organic material, such as the human body."

Our neighbors in South Dakota speak from experience. The Gilt Edge Mine in the Black Hills is a federal Superfund cleanup site that has cost taxpayers, as of 2015, more than $100 million. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the most recent mine operator left behind some 150 million gallons of acidic, heavy metal-laden water in three open pits and millions of cubic yards of acid-generating, sulfide-bearing waste rock, as the Grand Rapids Herald Review reported in October 2015.

Clean water is not political. It's not partisan. It's a basic right in this country. And the Superior National Forest contains 20 percent of all the fresh water in the entire U.S. National Forest System. Lake Superior (a watershed threatened by the PolyMet sulfide mining proposal) holds 10 percent of the world's unfrozen fresh surface water.

As News Tribune columnist Sam Cook wrote in 2012, "It is impossible not to play out, in one's mind, a worst-case scenario: streams devoid of fish, rivers and lakes devoid of wild rice, wells full of undrinkable water."

If you value such iconic species as the American bald eagle, lake trout, walleye, white-tailed deer, moose, black bear, and ruffed grouse, you should care about these mining proposals. If you turn on the tap and expect your water to be cool and clean, you should step into the arena and help stop sulfide mining proposals in northern Minnesota's Superior National Forest.

David Lien of Colorado Springs, Colo., and formerly of Grand Rapids, Minn., is a former Air Force officer and the founder and former chairman of Minnesota Backcountry Hunters & Anglers (backcountryhunters.org). 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."