Local View: Ban on copper mining doesn't go far enough

From the column: "It is ... limited by law to a 20-year term. The Minnesota Legislature and U.S. Congress could ... permanently protect the Boundary Waters watershed from copper mining."

Becky Rom.jpg
Becky Rom

All Americans owe thanks to the administration of President Joe Biden for its action last week to protect the heart of the Superior National Forest, including the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, from the massive harm that could result from sulfide-ore copper mining (“ Biden halts new mining near Boundary Waters for 20 years ,” Jan. 26).

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland issued a public land order under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) Thursday, withdrawing 225,504 acres of federal land and minerals in the Superior National Forest from the federal mineral leasing program for 20 years, the maximum period allowed under the FLPMA. These lands and minerals — now off-limits to sulfide-ore copper mining — are located directly upstream of the Boundary Waters.

The Boundary Waters ecosystem has been identified as one of the most important landscapes in North America to help ward off the worst of the climate and extinction crises. This land is vital not only as a carbon sink but also because it contains linked wildlife habitat and migration corridors of incalculable value. Protecting the Boundary Waters headwaters, as Secretary Haaland’s order does, is a step toward fulfilling the promise of the recent Montreal agreement to preserve 30% of the earth’s land and water by 2030. The effort, known as “30x30,” is meant to head off mass extinctions.

Secretary Haaland’s order rests on diligent scientific work by professional land managers at the U.S. Forest Service. The Forest Service was required to prepare an Environmental Assessment to analyze the impact of the 20-year mining ban that it had proposed to the Department of the Interior. The final assessment, released with Secretary Haaland’s order, considers the environmental risks of copper mining. The assessment analyzes the impact of copper mining on land, water, and wildlife; the potential harm to Native American communities, treaty rights, and resources; and climate-change implications resulting from the destruction of forest land and the vast consumption of energy by mining operations.

The Environmental Assessment reflects intense awareness of the value of the public assets at risk. It states that “the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is a complex and interconnected ecosystem (that) offers recreational opportunities and other uses such that it is considered an irreplaceable national treasure.”


The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is of the same mind. In its 2017 water-quality assessment of the Rainy River headwaters, which includes much of the Boundary Waters headwaters, the MPCA described the waters as “immaculate” and stated that “the majority of the waterbodies … had exceptional biological, chemical, and physical characteristics that are worthy of additional protection.”

Those who argue that metals in the Boundary Waters watershed are needed for the transition to a green economy fail to balance the extremely limited mineral resource that could be extracted there against the value of what could be lost. The amount of nickel and cobalt is a pittance in terms of U.S. demand. The only viable solution for a transition to a green economy is to continue to rely on our longtime and secure allies — Canada, Australia, Norway, and others — for these metals.

Looking to the watershed of the Boundary Waters does next to nothing to help in the transition. Not only is the quantity of metals insignificant in terms of U.S. demand, but any such metals would be irrelevant because they likely would be shipped to China for smelting and processing and sold on the world market.

As good as Secretary Haaland’s order is, it is nonetheless limited by law to a 20-year term. The Minnesota Legislature and U.S. Congress could add hundreds of thousands of acres of healthy forests, wetlands, and waterways toward the goal of 30x30 by passing legislation to permanently protect the Boundary Waters watershed from copper mining. The Minnesota Legislature and Congress should act.

Becky Rom of Ely is the national chair of the nonprofit Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters ( She wrote this exclusively for the News Tribune.

What To Read Next
Get Local