The Boundary Waters Wilderness – Threatened by Dangerous Copper Mining

Boundary Waters Trip
Photo credit: Bear Witness Media; Caption: A group of LGBTQ+ outdoor industry and adventure community members (including from Patagonia, KEEN, and REI Co-op) on a Boundary Waters trip in 2022 sponsored by Ely Outfitting Company to benefit Mikah Meyer’s Outside Safe Space.

This post was written by Sam Chadwick, Associate Director of Save the Boundary Waters and Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness

Protecting the Boundary Waters from copper mining is a Priority Campaign of the Conservation Alliance and has long been championed by businesses and adventurers across the outdoor industry.

statement on the Boundary Waters from former U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell

Sometimes in the backcountry, we reach a hard-earned milestone and we celebrate; we breathe a sigh of relief and appreciate what we’ve just accomplished. And then, we shoulder our pack once more and keep going. 

It feels a little bit like that right now for those of us who’ve been working to protect the Boundary Waters Wilderness in northeastern Minnesota from the dark specter of dangerous copper mining. 

While we’re still savoring the fresh victory for the Wilderness – at the end of January, U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland protected federal lands in the Boundary Waters headwaters from copper mining for 20 years – it’s more important than ever to emphasize that our work is not done.

On the heels of this victory, we must seize the momentum, build an even bigger coalition, and engage in creative and powerful ways in the often frustrating but ever-important democratic processes, because that’s what it takes to protect our most precious outdoor places.

Let’s learn a bit more about what the recent decision means and what’s next.

The Interior’s Public Land Order only bans mineral leasing on federal public lands on the edge of the Boundary Waters, and for only 20 years. The decision is significant and strong, but it is not the whole ballgame by a long shot. State and private lands in the very same sensitive area remain vulnerable, and mining companies are exploring those lands today. 

Here’s what we’ve got to do:

Harness the momentum, energy, & attention from the recent announcement and work to codify these protections in statute – through laws passed by Congress and the state of Minnesota. 

Ensure protection (and adventure!) for all – The only future for conservation is one where everyone is welcome in the movement, no matter our backgrounds. We must continue to empower those who are too often excluded from or face barriers to outdoor recreation and advocacy. Together we can help ensure that the popularity of the Boundary Waters means future officials (Presidents, for example) won’t find an easy path to remove protections. 

  • We partner with the many organizations and camps in our region that focus on access to outdoor experiences for youth, people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, people with disabilities, and more.
  • Our youth-led Kids for the Boundary Waters program is making a huge impact now while also training the next generation of Boundary Waters advocates, conservationists, and environmental justice leaders.
  • The 375 members of our Boundary Waters Business Coalition, which includes many Conservation Alliance members, are a powerful business voice for protecting this valued and valuable landscape.

Use rock-solid science and the law – We’ll continue to research and compile the best information to make the expert scientific and legal case for protection of the Wilderness.

  • Our first-of-its-kind environmental lawsuit: we sued the MN Dept. of Natural Resources over Minnesota’s old mine-siting rules that don’t protect the Boundary Waters. 
  • We fight courtroom and public opinion battles against the deep-pocketed mining industry using facts, expert science, and the law.

The Boundary Waters is a paradise of woods and water. It is an ecological marvel, a world-class outdoor destination, and an economic engine for hundreds of businesses and many thousands of people.

Watch this compelling 90-second video ad Save the Boundary Waters created as part of their “America’s Wilderness” campaign

The Boundary Waters Wilderness and downstream Voyageurs National Park and Quetico Provincial Park in Canada – this vast wild boreal forest & lakeland recreation treasure – is vitally important for people and the planet. 

Together we are a far-reaching Boundary Waters community made up of thousands, millions, even, of adventurers, advocates, conservation experts, outdoor businesses & brands, Indigenous people (including those that hold Treaty Rights in this region), hunters and anglers, camps and access programs, creatives, elected officials, and more. Together we have advocated relentlessly, for many years, and built a powerful movement to protect the Boundary Waters forever. I, for one, will be continuing this work with a new spring in my step, because we have incredible momentum, and we’re going to accomplish our goals. Together, we can save the Boundary Waters.

From the editorial board of Minnesota’s major newspaper, January 28, 2023
The Star Tribune: A Historic Step to Protect the BWCA
“Haaland’s order constitutes conscientious natural resources leadership. It also safeguards an already thriving sector of the regional economy — the outfitters, resorts and other businesses that rely on a pristine BWCA. Another leader deserving praise is Becky Rom, an Ely native, grandmother and former attorney who has led this David-vs.-Goliath fight against Antofagasta.

But there’s still work to do. Permanent protection still must be implemented to prevent future chicanery from undoing BWCA protections or letting them expire. Legislation authored by U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., would do that and merits swift passage. State lawmakers also must pass Sen. Kelly Morrison’s bill to put mining restrictions on state land in the BWCA watershed.”

Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness was founded in 1996 by citizens who had been involved in Boundary Waters protection work for decades. As a locally-based national wilderness and public lands advocacy group, our flagship program for the last 10 years has been the Campaign to Save The Boundary Waters, our national coalition of more than 400 businesses, conservation, and hunting and angling groups united to permanently protect the wilderness from copper mining. 

Related post: December 2022: 112 Businesses Join Together to Call for Boundary Waters Protections