The vast interconnected waterways and forests of the United States’ most visited Wilderness are at risk from a proposed copper mine. The proposed mine would sit at the waterways that flow through the heart of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Voyageurs National Park. Save the Boundary Waters, a nationwide movement born out of the wilderness gateway town of Ely, Minnesota, seeks permanent protection of this wild and beautiful place.
About the Author: Since 2014, Samantha Chadwick has served as the Deputy Campaign Manager for Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness, the non-profit organization behind the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, and she coordinates the Boundary Waters Business Coalition. The Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters is a national coalition of 400+ businesses, conservation and hunting & angling organizations and other allies united to protect the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Voyageurs National Park from sulfide-ore copper mining proposed in the headwaters of these treasures. Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness is based in Ely, Minnesota, the gateway to the Boundary Waters. www.SavetheBoundaryWaters.org
A Unique and Cherished Wilderness
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northeastern Minnesota is a 1.1 million acre gem contiguous with Minnesota’s Voyageurs National Park and Quetico Provincial Park in Canada. In total, the area comprises 4.3 million acres of wild land and water critical for people and the planet. The Boundary Waters is within the Superior National Forest which contains 20 percent of all the freshwater in the entire National Forest system. Millions of people have developed a lifelong love of nature through camping, fishing, paddling, dogsledding, hunting and hiking experiences in this one-of-a-kind Wilderness. The Boundary Waters’ tranquil lakes, forests, trails and more than 1,200 miles of canoe routes offer unparalleled recreation and critical habitat for fish and wildlife like walleye, northern pike, lake trout, smallmouth bass, wolves, lynx, moose, bears, loons, river otters, bald eagles and osprey.
The Anishinaabe people (also known as Ojibwe or Chippewa) have lived in what is now northeastern Minnesota for countless generations. The Boundary Waters is within the 1854 Ceded Territory where several Chippewa Bands retain hunting, fishing, and gathering rights guaranteed by treaty and coordinated by the tribal government-run 1854 Treaty Authority. Basswood Lake, located in the Boundary Waters and Quetico Park and along the international border, is the ancestral homeland of the Lac La Croix First Nation Community and a sacred place for Anishinaabeg.
There are Native American pictographs, drawn hundreds of years ago, in the Boundary Waters. This cliff painting on North Hegman Lake depicts a human figure, animals including a moose, and paddlers in canoes. Photo: Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness.
Looming Threat of Mining
This incredible region is threatened by proposals to develop sulfide-ore copper mining on the very edge of the Wilderness. Twin Metals, owned by Chilean mining company Antofagasta, seeks copper and other metals from low-grade sulfide-bearing ore along waterways that flow into the heart of the Boundary Waters. History shows sulfide-ore mining always pollutes. The clean water and rich ecosystem of the Boundary Waters watershed are particularly sensitive to the acid mine drainage from this type of mining; the water chemistry is low in alkaline with little capacity to buffer an influx of acid. Mining infrastructure near the edge of the Wilderness would seriously damage and disrupt thousands of surface acres in the Superior National Forest, with cascading effects on the ecosystem outside and within the Boundary Waters. Peer-reviewed science shows pollution from copper mining in the headwaters of the Boundary Waters would permanently damage extensively interconnected downstream lakes, rivers, and groundwater.
Destruction of boreal forest and wetlands for industrial mining would be a double whammy: causing the release of carbon into the atmosphere and the loss of capacity for the land to take up carbon in the future. An estimate of greenhouse gas emissions from the proposed Twin Metals mine is 23,444,730 metric tons of CO2 over a 20-year life of the mine — equivalent to adding nearly 5 million passenger vehicles to the roads for a year. Recent studies name the Boundary Waters as a wildland refuge crucial to the planet’s ability to sustain biodiversity in the face of a changing climate.
Explorers Amy and Dave Freeman travel with sled dogs through the Boundary Waters. Photo by Nate Ptacek.
Amenity-Based Sustainable Economy
The Boundary Waters powers a strong and enduring outdoor recreation economy in northeastern Minnesota that supports 17,000 jobs and $913 million in sales annually, and powers businesses, resorts, lodges, outfitters, campgrounds, homes and more. Proposals to transform this area into an industrial mining district would displace local residents and many businesses. Analysis shows mining in the watershed could lead to the loss of nearly 5,000 jobs in tourism, up to 22,000 jobs in the rest of the economy, a $1.6 billion loss in annual income, and a $509 million reduction in private property values. An independent peer-reviewed economic study demonstrated that a ban on copper mining in the Boundary Waters watershed would result in more jobs and more income for the region.
Steve & Nancy Piragis own Piragis Northwoods Company in Ely. The Boundary Waters Business Coalition includes 350 businesses that support permanent protection for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Photo: Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness.
Save the Boundary Waters supporters gather at Voyageur Outward Bound School on the edge of the Boundary Waters and adjacent to the proposed copper mine site. Photo by Nate Ptacek.
Speak Loudly for this Quiet Place
Since 2012, Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness, a grassroots organization based in the Boundary Waters gateway town of Ely, Minnesota, has been leading and building the national movement to permanently protect the Boundary Waters from sulfide-ore mining. The Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters now includes more than 400 businesses, conservation organizations, hunting and angling groups and other allies and reaches millions of people across the country.
During the Obama administration, federal agencies terminated Twin Metals’ old, expired mineral leases, deemed copper mining an unacceptable risk to the Boundary Waters, and initiated a study for a proposed 20-year administrative ban on copper mining in the Boundary Waters watershed (This same mechanism has been used to protect other valued public lands including the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and the Methow Valley.) During the public input period, hundreds of thousands of people submitted written comments or attended public meetings to voice support for banning copper mining near the Boundary Waters.
Unfortunately, the Trump administration worked furiously to unwind these protections to benefit a foreign mining conglomerate while ignoring science, facts and the law, as well as the will of the American people. But advocates faithfully defended the Boundary Waters – through litigation, Congressional oversight, research, public outreach and grassroots organizing — building an even more broad, powerful and determined coalition that is poised to protect this place forever.
Kids for the Boundary Waters has taken multiple trips of 70+ youth on D.C. fly-in advocacy trips. Here a group meets with Senator Tina Smith in the Hart Office Building.
Path to Permanent Protection for the Boundary Waters
The Biden-Harris administration should revisit and reverse dubious decisions made during the Trump administration. The Secretary of the Interior (As a Congresswoman, Deb Haaland was a cosponsor of the Boundary Waters protection legislation) can re-initiate the process to consider a 20-year ban on mining on public lands in the watershed, starting with a two-year pause and study of the risks of sulfide-ore copper mining in this location. The resurrected mineral leases on the edge of the Boundary Waters should be terminated once-and-for-all, either by federal agencies or through pending lawsuits brought by conservation groups and businesses. Congress must also pass Representative Betty McCollum’s bill to permanently ban copper mining on Superior National Forest lands in the Boundary Waters watershed. This bill, the Boundary Waters Wilderness Protection and Pollution Prevention Act, was passed by the House Natural Resources Committee in September 2020 and is expected to be reintroduced soon in the 117th Congress.
Take Action: Sign and share the petition asking the Biden-Harris administration to permanently protect the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Voyageurs National Park from sulfide-ore copper mining.
- Experience The Boundary Waters 360
- Explore National Geographic: A pristine American backcountry faces down an environmental crisis
- Watch In Deep Water: The fight to save the Boundary Waters
- Follow Explorers Amy and Dave Freeman in Bear Witness: A Year in the Wilderness