Last week, federal agencies responsible for stewardship of America’s public lands did the right thing: they took a hard look at science and public opinion and made a sober decision to protect Minnesota’s iconic Boundary Waters from a sulfide-ore copper mining project by denying the renewal of two mineral leases. The proposed mining location is less than a mile from the wilderness’ edge and could have caused devastating pollution in a place where some of Earth’s cleanest water runs for miles and miles in every direction.
The U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management also announced they would undertake a broader study of the Boundary Waters watershed—including its unique ecology, the local and regional economies it supports in Minnesota, its importance for those who love hunting, fishing and other recreation, and more—to determine whether or not, given these factors, the watershed makes sense for sulfide-ore copper mining in the future.
These were not simple decisions for our government. Rural communities in Minnesota’s Arrowhead region have been hit hard by economic recession and globalization and some residents stood to gain much-needed jobs had mining been approved. Their stories are real and heartbreaking and they deserve our serious attention.
But in denying the renewal of two mining leases near Ely, our government recognized the enduring economic and recreational benefits the Boundary Waters provides and determined that the value of protecting the wilderness far outweighs the time-limited benefits mining might have brought. This is a cause for celebration. And it’s a boost of energy for the immense work we still need to do to protect this special place forever.
Many people may not quite realize the crown jewel that sits atop our beautiful state—especially those like me who grew up here in the north and took the Boundary Waters for granted. The Boundary Waters is America’s most popular wilderness area, all-told attracting more than 500,000 visitors from all over the world to our state every year. These visitors stay in Minnesota hotels, eat at Minnesota restaurants, buy Minnesota-made gear and clothing, buy things at Minnesota shops, spend money on Minnesota transportation, fuel up at Minnesota gas stations, hire Minnesota outfitters and guides to help them experience the wilderness, and otherwise spend money at all kinds of local businesses that employ hardworking Minnesotans.
This is all part of the powerful tourism and recreation economy created and sustained by the Boundary Waters. It supports 17,000 jobs and drives $850 million in sales in Northeastern Minnesota alone, providing a big boost to rural communities. Zooming out a bit, the Boundary Waters is the single most important driver of a statewide outdoor economy that generates $11.6 billion in consumer spending and 118,000 jobs.
Even better: jobs supported by the Boundary Waters are resilient and sustainable. Nationally, the outdoor economy actually grew during the Great Recession, expanding by five percent annually from 2005-2011. These jobs are also safe from the volatility that makes mining such a boom-and-bust enterprise, and safe from the whims of multinational mining conglomerates with no ties to the community and little local investment. (Safe, that is, unless we destroy the wilderness by opening an industrial sulfide-ore copper mining pit right next door.)
Nowhere do the wide-ranging benefits of the Boundary Waters come to life more than in Ely. Ely is a growing community that’s actively attracting new residents and businesses because it offers a high quality of life provided by outstanding hunting, fishing and recreation opportunities. Ely and other towns near the Boundary Waters, including Duluth, are thriving because residents have embraced the economic potential of the outdoors. Ely can provide a model for small towns all across the country, situated near wilderness and other public lands, to emulate in finding a path forward from reliance on unstable extractive industries.
So, I commend our government for making the right decision for Minnesota. Whether you generally support mining in Minnesota or not, the Boundary Waters works for everyone. It’s a beautiful place for solace and reflection and it creates jobs and fosters growing prosperity. It’s simply too special to risk.
The Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters is leading the effort to ensure permanent protection for the Boundary Waters Wilderness, America’s most visited Wilderness and Minnesota’s crown jewel, from proposed sulfide-ore copper mining. Tell Senators Klobuchar and Franken you support protecting the Boundary Waters. Sign the petition.
If you’ve never visited the Boundary Waters, check out this just-released documentary that was made in part with funding from a Patagonia environmental grant.