Sportsmen celebrate as Feds deny minerals lease renewals for mine near Boundary Waters

(Photo by Brian Peterson)

A day after the announcement, public lands sportsmen on Friday were applauding the denial of federal mineral leases in the Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness watershed.

Two longstanding mineral rights leases that are critical for a proposed large underground copper-nickel mine upstream from the pristine BWCAW in northeastern Minnesota will not be renewed, two federal agencies announced Thursday.

The decision by the Department of Interior and the Department of Agriculture strikes a serious blow to the proposed Twin Metals project near Ely. The agencies also announced other steps to protect the Boundary Waters watershed from future mining projects.

In a statement, the agencies cited “broad concerns from thousands of public comments and input about potential impacts of mining on the wilderness area’s watershed, fish and wildlife, and the nearly $45 million recreation economy.”

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in the statement that the agencies plan to take a two-year “time out” to conduct a careful environmental analysis and engage the public on whether future mining should be authorized on any federal land next door to the Boundary Waters.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell noted that the Boundary Waters is the most visited federally designated wilderness area in the U.S., with 150,000 visitors annually.

“This is the right action to take to avoid irrevocably damaging this watershed and its recreation-based economy, while also taking the time and space to review whether to further protect the area from all new mining,” Jewell said in the announcement.

The leases were first issued in 1966 and last renewed in 2004 and would have allowed the company to mine copper, nickel and precious metals from the lands near southeast of Ely. Environmentalists objected because the metals are bound up in sulfide-bearing minerals that can leach sulfuric acid and other pollutants when exposed to air and water. The agencies said acid mine drainage would pose a significant risk to the Boundary Waters.

Twin Metals sued the federal government in September to force renewal of the leases. The company says it can mine without damaging the wilderness while creating hundreds of badly needed jobs in an economically struggling region of the state.

Thursday’s decision drew praise from groups such as Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, whose members have consistently advocated for the region’s conservation.

“The Boundary Waters in northern Minnesota are a special place for people who love to hunt and fish,” said Mark Norquist, a resident of Minnetonka in the Twin Cities and a board member of BHA’s Minnesota chapter. “Science has shown the copper mining in the watershed would inflict devastating harm on this priceless wilderness. Minnesotans and sportsmen welcome the federal government’s decision to deny the request for renewal of expired leases by Twin Metals.”

“The Boundary Waters are one of the nation’s most iconic landscapes,” said BHA President and CEO Land Tawney. “To even consider defiling this pristine watershed is ludicrous. We thank the Obama administration for taking bold action in support of the Boundary Waters, and we look forward to working with the Trump administration to conserve this irreplaceable region in perpetuity.”

— The Associated Press contributed to this report


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