Priority Campaign Guest Blog: Boundary Waters

This post was written by Sam Chadwick - Associate Director, and Ethan Brown - Communications Associate at Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness and the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, based in Ely, Minnesota.

Photo: Alex Falconer
Header photo by Alex Falconer

In 2022 Let’s Protect the Boundary Waters Wilderness Forever

America’s most popular and accessible Wilderness could gain permanent protection against risky copper mining by the end of this year. In January, the Biden administration canceled two federal mining leases for a proposed sulfide-ore copper mine that posed an existential threat to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, a 1.1 million-acre expanse of pristine water and thriving forests in northeastern Minnesota. Voyageurs National Park and Canada’s Quetico Provincial Park also lie downstream of proposed copper mining. The lease cancellation was a major victory for organizations and individuals invested in maintaining the unspoiled beauty and ecology of the Boundary Waters — but the fight isn’t over yet.

The Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters and its national coalition allies have been working tirelessly for 10 years to achieve permanent protection against copper mining in the headwaters of the Boundary Waters. With the Biden administration and Congress both currently weighing its fate, we believe 2022 is absolutely critical for this precious Wilderness in Minnesota.

We need to capitalize on this year’s victories, which have brought us to the threshold of achieving permanent and lasting protections for the Boundary Waters and the Quetico-Superior ecosystem. If we fail to act, we will miss out on a rare opportunity to protect public lands as valuable and beloved as the Boundary Waters, and cast into doubt whether or not this one-of-a-kind Wilderness will be protected for the generations to come.

A broad coalition is winning for the Wilderness 

The Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters is a community-built initiative by Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness in Ely, Minnesota — a gateway town to the Boundary Waters. The movement has grown into a national coalition of 400+ conservation and hunting & fishing organizations and businesses united by the same original goal: to achieve a permanent ban on sulfide-ore copper mining in the watershed of the Boundary Waters, Voyageurs National Park, and Canada’s Quetico Park.

The Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters has received grant funding from The Conservation Alliance since 2015, and was designated by TCA as a priority issue in 2021 and 2022 with the goal of finally achieving permanent protection through federal law. Our highly coordinated and strategic federal and state strategies include expert peer-reviewed science, advocacy, strategic communications, and litigation.

Youth-led initiative Kids for the Boundary Waters meets (virtually) with U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland.

This multi-prong approach to advocacy has laid the groundwork for many of the victories we’ve achieved within the last year. The most visible of our successes was the determination by Department of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland that two federal mineral leases held by Twin Metals had been unlawfully renewed by the Trump administration. The cancellation of the leases paused the immediate threat from that proposed sulfide-ore copper mine mere miles upstream from the Boundary Waters.

The proposed site of the Twin Metals mine would sit above the Boundary Waters in the Rainy River Watershed, shown by this map, posing existential risks of mine pollution into and through the heart of the Wilderness.

Even better, there are two more longstanding protections currently under consideration by the Biden administration and Congress. In October 2021, the U.S. Department of the Interior began the “mineral withdrawal” process, to determine whether to impose a 20-year ban on hardrock mining on 225,378 acres of federal land within the Boundary Waters watershed. Additionally, U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum has introduced legislation – the Boundary Waters Wilderness Protection and Pollution Prevention Act (H.R. 2794), which would permanently protect against sulfide-ore copper mining on these federal public lands around the Boundary Waters.

The Boundary Waters is vital for people and the planet

Permanent protection for the Boundary Waters is needed for continued sustainable economic development in the region, and the fight against climate change. Local outfitters and other businesses rely on a clean Wilderness area for their livelihoods, and a polluted Boundary Waters would spell disaster for the endangered species and climate change-resistant boreal forests.

Photo: Nate Ptacek
Nate Ptacek

Sulfide-ore copper mining in any capacity would cause irreversible damage to the Boundary Waters ecosystem, as our peer-reviewed science has shown that heavy metal mining always pollutes. These risks increase in a wet environment like the Boundary Waters, as Dr. Paul Ziemkiewicz, Director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute, noted in a recent U.S. Senate hearing.

Just as importantly, the Boundary Waters is Native land. Anishinaabe people, also known in this region as Ojibwe or Chippewa, have lived here for countless generations and have a deep relationship with these lands and waters. People lived and thrived throughout the Boundary Waters, as shown by the hundreds of pictographs found within the Wilderness. Protecting the Boundary Waters against copper mining would respect the request of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, who have spoken out in support of protections.

You can be part of saving the Boundary Waters

This fight to defend the Boundary Waters requires collaboration and support from all of us in the outdoor industry. In our most critical year yet, we need your help to ensure that Congress and the Biden administration will choose to safeguard a treasured Wilderness forever. The combined efforts of our organization, allied businesses, and invested individuals have led to many victories — we have a rare opportunity this year to get across the finish line. It will not be easy or come automatically, which is why we need to build an even bigger and more powerful coalition this year.

Photo: Dom RIcci

Individuals committed to protecting the Boundary Waters can do the following:

  • Follow Save the Boundary Waters on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, listen to our Podcast, and stay up-to-date on our efforts and share important info with your communities
  • Check out our volunteer page to find ways to get involved and take action
  • Tell your Congressperson to support permanent protections for the Boundary Waters
  • Donate to the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters

For brands and businesses interested in how they can join our efforts: