Conservationist's View Column: Clean water or copper mining? More states are protecting vital watersheds

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David Lien

Clean water is our state’s most basic currency and economic lifeblood, but the multibillion-dollar outdoor recreation economy it drives is under threat by foreign mining interests, supported by the Trump administration, looking to start sulfide-ore copper mining operations.

Unfortunately, Minnesota is not the only state fighting such battles.

Recently, President Donald Trump’s administration tried to force-feed uranium mining on Virginia, but state legislators brought their fight to the Supreme Court. Virginia lawmakers argued that volatility in the mining industry “could leave behind a shuttered mine and a weakened local economy.” The proposed mining would have taken place in a county where 60,000 residents rely on agriculture and get their water mostly from wells, according to USA Today. During oral arguments in November, Virginia Solicitor General Toby Heytens told Supreme Court justices that removing up to 119 million pounds of ore would entail “a massive earth-moving mine operation” that would detract from the area’s rustic scenery and tourism industry. Sound familiar? Court justices backed Virginia, telling the Trump administration it had no authority to force mining on Virginia residents.

Proposed sulfide-ore copper mining operations in northern Minnesota are expected by many to negatively impact our state’s thriving outdoor recreation economy. An economic analysis by James H. Stock, a prominent Harvard economics professor and a former member of the White House Council of Economic Advisors, showed that sulfide-ore copper mining in the Superior National Forest could lead to the losses of nearly 5,000 jobs in tourism, up to 22,000 jobs in the rest of the economy, $1.6 billion in annual income, and $509 million in private property values.

In the July 18 issue of The Hill, former U.S. Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck said if we want to look at this issue through a business lens, let’s remember that our wild public lands are vital to the U.S. economy. “Outdoor recreation produces hundreds of billions in consumer spending nationally and about $16 billion in Minnesota alone,” he said. “It sustains roughly 140,000 jobs in the state known as the ‘Land of 10,000 Lakes,’ which underscores the value of its wild waterways.”


As for those who are willing to trade clean water for copper and say that copper is in short supply or is a critical mineral, that’s hogwash. According to the Copper Development Association, known global copper resources are estimated at nearly 5.8 trillion pounds, of which only about 0.7 trillion pounds (12 percent) have been mined throughout human history.

“Copper is not on the critical mineral list. We have a lot of it. It’s also one of the easiest metals to recycle,” Lukas Leaf, executive director of Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters, said in the May 13 edition of Outdoor News.

Instead of promoting watershed-ruining sulfide mining proposals, let’s protect Minnesota’s greatest asset: clean water. Tom Landwehr, the former commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said in May in Progressive, “It is a fragile ecosystem with water so pure you can drink it straight from the lake. It is home to iconic species including moose, wolf and lynx. It is a world-class fishing destination.”

In the words of Dave Frederickson, the former Minnesota Department of Agriculture commissioner, quoted by Outdoor News in January 2017, “In Minnesota, water is our currency, and we can’t walk away from that. We are a headwaters state.”

I grew up in northern Minnesota and have seen the boom and bust of the extractive industries. This landscape is an essential part of Minnesota’s sustainable recreation economy. Let’s not let the Trump administration and foreign mining interests put it at risk.

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 also 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."

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