Growing up in Duluth in the 1940s and ‘50s was exciting for a youth bedazzled by the bountiful natural resources surrounding us, especially the magnificent Lake Superior and its incomparable North Shore. Further north there was country that simply took your breath away, with plentiful opportunities for camping and canoe trips; at times I thought I was living in a paradise. Eventually I learned that this special part of Minnesota was part of the Superior National Forest and what has come to be known as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. I was honored to work in the White House when President Jimmy Carter and Vice President Walter Mondale persuaded Congress to enact the BWCA Wilderness Act of 1978.
As readers of this paper know, the Boundary Waters is being threatened, this time by proposals by Antofagasta of Chile and others to mine publicly owned minerals in the Superior National Forest just outside the Boundary Waters along lakes and streams that flow directly into the wilderness. Sulfide-ore copper mining is one of the most toxic industries in the world, and the watershed of the Boundary Waters is no place to permit it to occur. The damage to water, plants, and wildlife would be irreparable.
Further, permitting a mine proposed at the edge of the wilderness promises to devastate the local outdoor amenities-based economy. A peer-reviewed study from a Harvard economics professor found that protecting the Boundary Waters from copper mining would result in more jobs and more income for the region over a 20-year period.
Antofagasta’s Twin Metals argues it is entitled to proceed with its proposed mining because the administration of President Donald Trump reinstated mineral leases that the administration of President Barack Obama had terminated. The reinstatement has been challenged as unlawful because it was contrary to lease language that had been consistently interpreted by administrations of both parties for 50 years. In June 2018, the Trump administration also announced the cancellation of a federal “mineral withdrawal” study that, if completed, likely would have resulted in a ban on mineral leasing in the Boundary Waters watershed for up to 20 years.
In response to the Trump administration’s irresponsible actions, U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum of Minnesota introduced the Boundary Waters Wilderness Protection and Pollution Prevention Act. Further, Minnesota’s U.S. Sen. Tina Smith wrote to the secretaries of Agriculture and Interior, calling on them to restart the mineral-withdrawal study that the previous administration canceled.
Sen. Smith accurately called the BWCAW a “fragile and irreplaceable resource” and said that we must “weigh clear-headed science” in a process that “must be thorough, complete and unbiased.” Smith’s letter to the Biden administration set forth a compelling case. She stated clearly that she is not anti-mining but instead that toxic sulfide-ore copper mining is not right for all places. Walter Mondale told me he strongly agreed with Smith’s letter because he knew the withdrawal study must be completed.
A majority of Minnesotans oppose sulfide-ore copper mining on the edge of the Boundary Waters. When leaders like Sen. Smith and Rep. McCollum step up to permanently protect our crown jewel, the Biden administration should listen.
Mondale remained devoted to permanently protecting the Boundary Waters, calling it “the obligation of each generation;” he consistently implored public officials to meet that obligation through the final weeks of his life.
Saving the Boundary Waters was a personal mission for Walter Mondale, as it is for countless others who love its beauty and wildness.
It is personal for me as well. Even after all these years, I know that the Boundary Waters Wilderness is, as Mondale said, our “crown jewel” — the heart and soul of the Minnesota Arrowhead.
Richard Moe of Washington, D.C., is a Duluth native and the former chief of staff to Sen. and Vice President Walter Mondale. He also was an assistant to President Jimmy Carter and the former president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. He wrote this exclusively for the News Tribune.