Local View: The 20-year mining moratorium is a way forward

From the column: "Sulfide mining is billed as a return to ... prosperity ... based on iron mining. However, it’s more likely that copper-sulfide mining would do more harm to the economy than good."

Twin Metals has been working to open an underground mine near Ely and the Kawishiwi River.
2019 News Tribune file photo

Northeastern Minnesota, and the entire state, have been given a huge opportunity. The question is, do we have the creativity and collective will to seize it?

Last week, the Bureau of Land Management announced it would implement a 20-year ban on sulfide mining on federal lands in the Rainy River watershed, further protecting the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness from risky copper-sulfide mining projects.

Copper-sulfide mining has never been done in Minnesota. It is a notoriously dirty process, so much so that the Environmental Protection Agency has listed it as the most polluting industry in the United States. The prospect of such a toxic industry operating at the doorstep of some of the most pristine water in the country caused a national outcry and mobilized thousands to speak up for this wilderness treasure.

The protections that were announced are a result of recommendations from a two-year scientific study into the potential impact that copper-sulfide mining could have on the Rainy River watershed. For a time, Antofagasta, the Chilean conglomerate that sought to open a copper-sulfide mine at the edge of the Boundary Waters, managed to lobby the administration of President Donald Trump to stop the study and subsequently hide it from the public. In short, a foreign mining company was able to steer policy and suppress scientific findings to promote its own interests, not those of Minnesotans.

Thankfully, this corrupt political back-slapping ended when the Forest Service completed, then released, the study to the public. Its results are clear: Copper-sulfide mining in the Rainy River watershed would pose an enormous threat to the Boundary Waters, jeopardizing some of the cleanest freshwater in the country.


This moratorium gives us a chance to move on from an almost-decade-long debate over copper-sulfide mining near the Boundary Waters. For too long, politicians and mining allies have promoted Twin Metals as a cure-all for the region’s economic challenges. Sulfide mining is billed as a return to an early 20th century prosperity that was once based on iron mining.

However, it’s more likely that copper-sulfide mining would do more harm to the economy than good. A 2019 study by a Harvard economist concluded that in the long run, sulfide mining in the Rainy River watershed would negatively impact the sustainable wilderness economy that depends on the Boundary Waters and would be detrimental to the economic well-being of the region.

Many will no doubt ask: If not mining, what then is the solution for Northeastern Minnesota? The moratorium should force politicians and leaders to be both realists and creative — and to think beyond mining’s boom-and-bust impact on the economy and the little economic benefit it brings.

We’ve seen how transforming a former mining area into mountain-bike trails has revived a town like Crosby in the Cuyuna Range. That’s just a slice of what’s possible. There is talk of converting brownfields and tailings of old mining sites into solar facilities, which would provide jobs and clean, green energy to the region.

On that note, through state assistance and support, including from the IRRRB, Mountain Iron was able to open a solar panel manufacturing plant, which is growing as a national producer of much-needed solar panels. And there are small manufacturers in Ely — Wintergreen and Portage North — producing world-class clothing and camping equipment.

Further, with the spread of remote working, it’s likely that more people will choose to move to the area. They move here for the lakes, the forests, and the natural beauty, infusing new economic vitality into the region.

The economy of Northeastern Minnesota is not dependent on international mining conglomerates and their polluting projects. A coordinated plan involving public and private investment, similar to the Destination Medical Center economic initiative that has transformed Rochester, Minnesota, could unlock the potential of the region.

Protecting the Boundary Waters and Lake Superior from copper-sulfide mining is an economic investment. The 20-year mining ban can lead us on a path to realizing this opportunity and this potential.


Chris Knopf is executive director of the nonprofit, St. Paul-based Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness (, which also has an office in Ely.

Chris Knopf.jpg
Chris Knopf

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