The battle over the future of a land of water and wilderness

BWCA fishing time

Lukas Leaf, far right, settles into his canoe as he and other anglers head out for an evening fishing in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota. Leaf is the outreach coordinator for Sportsmen for the Boundary waters, a group campaigning against a proposed copper/nickel mine near the BWCA border. Photo and story by Dave Buchanan

Tim Barton, a guide and outfitter for Piragis Northwoods Company in Ely, Minn., likely knows as well as anyone the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, a 1.09-million-acre gem of public land in far-north Minnesota that stretches for 150 miles along the U.S./Canada border.

Barton, 31, has been journeying through the Boundary Waters since he was “6 or 7, I guess,” he said. ““By the time I was 13 I was guiding trips for my dad.”

This is a land that’s mostly water, where most of the estimated 1,100 lakes, spruce-dotted islands and rivers with white-water falls are accessible only by paddle or portage.

It’s also a land of contrasts. At night, an immense bowl of sky showers you with a king’s ransom of stars dancing across dark skies like a million candles to light your way, and in the day that expanse of sky cradles endless expanses of pristine water and an ever-changing vista of every imaginable shade of green, this month sprinkled with red, carmine and gold, the first changing of the leaves.

You hear the wind in the spruce, a loon’s distant whistle, the grunt of moose, maybe even the howl of a wolf.

Barton tried living in Colorado for a while but found irresistible the lure of the north woods.

“I couldn’t live anywhere else,” he said.

Last week, thanks to the efforts of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Barton and fellow guide (and forager par excellence) Lukas Leaf, outreach coordinator for Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters, herded four writers and photographers on a four-day trip into the bones of the BWCAW.

Thee, with a captive/receptive audience, Barton and Leaf preached the gospel of what the Boundary Waters means to the area’s estimated quarter-million annual visitors and the importance of saving this wilderness from the threat of a sulfide-ore copper/nickel mine proposed to be dug in the Boundary Waters watershed.

split supprt from MPR

Split emotions are evident during a recent hearing about an underground mine proposed near the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area. Courtesy Minnesota Public Radio.

Northern Minnesota is mining country, its past forged with a complex history and the millions of tons of iron ore dug from the ground and shipped to mills and foundries, many of them on the shores of Lake Superior less than 100 miles to the southeast. Many of those mines have closed, often due to competition from foreign ores and depressed national markets.

There still are many people in Ely and elsewhere who dream of the return of well-paying mining jobs.They are well-meaning and serious about what the mine could provide mean to the economic future of the area and their families.

But mining iron ore isn’t the same as mining copper ore with its sulfurous residue, Leaf said one night as the campfire burned low. One rusts, the other acidifies, and a spill into a river can quickly change a vibrant river into a lifeless stream.

And I’ve seen the destruction a failed acid-leach mine tailing pile can wreak on an environment. Colorado’s mining history (e.g., Leadville, Del Norte, Silverton) is replete with what happens when a tailing dam fails or acid drainage leaches into a nearby stream or river.

“Over time, the structural integrity and the general competency of all tunnels and underground mine workings will continue to deteriorate without regular maintenance,” states an Environmental Protection Agency handout written about the Leadville acid mining drainage.

Today, tourism, mostly the year-round lure of the Boundary Waters and adjacent Quetico Provincial Park in Canada, is the one of region’s leading economic drivers albeit less (by about a third) of mining’s economic impact.

In 2016, the federal government said it would not renew two key mineral leases which had expired in 2013, saying the proposed mine posed too great a threat to the Boundary Waters.

But that was before the Trump administration came to power. Now, Twin Metals Mining has renewed its fight to have the leases renewed, feeling the chances are better with the de-regulation attitude popular in Washington, D.C.

Currently, the leases are being reviewed. The public comment period closed last month.

Advertisements

Green Mtn. Reservoir latest to reach the “suspect” list for invasive mussels.

Heeney-Marina-Green-Mountain-Reservoir-Boat-Rentals-12

The Heeney Marina on Green Mountain Reservoir near Silverthorne. Photo courtesy Heeney Marina.

The battle continues. Colorado Parks and Wildlife has listed Green Mountain Reservoir north of Silverthorne as “suspect” for invasive aquatic mussels.

Read the press release here and the Denver Post article here.

Power plant shutdown puts end to peak flows on Gunnison River

East Portal spring 2017

The Gunnison River at the East Portal diversion for the Gunnison Tunnel in May of this year when flows were around 10,500 cfs. This year’s spring peak-flow releases to meet various downstream demands ended today. Photo/story by Dave Buchanan

The Western Colorado Area office of the Bureau of Reclamation announced today (Friday, June 16) that the spring peak-flow operations on the Gunnison River have ended. “Due to an issue with the power plant at Crystal Dam, the ramp down was forced to end prematurely,” the announcement said. A BuRec official said the power plan “tripped offline” and as of late Friday the plant still was awaiting an inspection.

Initially the BuRec had planned to continue ramping the peak flows through Monday but the loss of the power plant meant river flows dropped to their previously set post-peak level.

“As of today (June 16) releases are being made through the bypass gates at a rate of 2,150 cfs. This has put flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon around 1,150 cfs,” Friday’s announcement said. The Gunnison Tunnel, which carries water from the Gunnison River to the Uncompahgre Valley, currently is taking about 1,000 cfs.

According to the Bureau, the releases will continue at this rate “for the foreseeable future,” with further adjustments possible depending on runoff into Blue Mesa Reservoir.

As of Thursday, Blue Mesa was at an elevation of 7,501.88 feet, which puts it at 81.6 percent of full pool and 18 feet below full pool (7,520 feet elevation).

Unless something unexpected happens to the current runoff forecast, Bureau officials it is expected the reservoir will fill this summer.

 

High water? Time to change the game plan

IMG_9880.JPG

The confluence of the North Fork (top) and the mainstem Gunnison River (entering from right) shows the value of having a dam-controlled river to fish during runoff. The Pleasure Park is as far left of photo. Photo and article by Dave Buchanan

Nearly six months after putting away your fishing rods and waders, spring is luring you back to the river.

At first glance it seems a Fool’s Paradise because everywhere you look, the winter’s abundant snowpack has rivers and streams blown out with runoff, a situation that doesn’t seem likely to end soon.

Fishing, you glumly think, is out.

But not so fast. While fly fishing during runoff isn’t quite the pastoral setting otherwise portrayed in fishing magazines and TV ads, don’t count out your chances of catching fish even when rivers run the color and consistency of a cappuccino.

“You really do have a lot of opportunities, you just have to change your game plan a bit,” offered veteran angling guide Will Sands of Taylor Creek Fly Shop in Basalt. “Sometimes (high water) enables us to change our thought processes about where we can fish. With some forethought and a bit of planning, you’ll be surprised at the quality of fishing you can find.”

Fishing guides know that their livelihood depends on having satisfied clients, even when runoff darkens the water on most streams, and here are some high-water fishing tips gleaned from experienced anglers who know better than to stay home when a river somewhere is calling their name.

Fish the tailwaters – Western Colorado has several excellent fisheries in the tailwaters immediately below dams where access is easy. While runoff may cause the flows to increase, the water comes out clear and cold.

“We’re really lucky here in the valley (because) the Fryingpan (River) for the most part is managed to the best interest of anglers,” Sands said. “Certain flow levels on the Fryingpan are more accommodating to anglers and water managers try to keep the river to those flows.”

In addition to the Fryingpan River, the list of tailwaters includes the Gunnison, Taylor, Yampa and San Juan rivers. Continue reading