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.

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