Sulfide Mining Near America’s Most Used Canoe Wilderness Area

I live near the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) and on the shore of Lake Superior. Both locations are among the most pristine locations in the world. When paddling on Lake Superior, I can see what seems like forever into its depths–it looks cleaner than a swimming pool. On the inland lakes, I can paddle for weeks without seeing any of the adverse effects of mankind. There is no pollution to be seen. The wildlife is abundant. Fishing is world-class. When camping in the BWCA, the only sounds heard are the natural sounds of a clean healthy wilderness: the howl of a wolf, the call of a loon, or the hoot of an owl.

That could change.

Two large international corporations, PolyMet Mining and Franconia Minerals Corporation want to try sulfide mining near the Boundary Waters and Lake Superior. Pollution from the mines could enter waterways that flow to both Lake Superior and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Any arrant pollution could kill off wildlife, destroy our world-class fishing, and the noise from the mining could enter the BWCA ruining the natural wilderness properties that are part of its mandate. These mines could ruin the pristine wilderness properties paddlers hold dear.

Since the glaciers retreated, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area remained relatively untouched by human fingers. Its pristine nature allowed it to be recognized as official wilderness by the U.S. Federal government. I feel lucky to live in a location and live in a time that recognizes the intrinsic value of wilderness. This value–or spirit–provides a location that over 250,000 people a year can come to. They come to experience what our world was like before mankind significantly changed it, they come to interact with something they don’t have during their daily lives, and they come to enjoy a pristine lake country. While here, our wilderness allows the visitors to experience the feeling of exploration that our forefathers felt when first exploring the land. To lose this history, to lose this area to pollution, to lose this spiritual natural retreat would be a travesty to all Americans and to everyone in the world.

From the U.S. Forest Service:

The Boundary Waters was recognized for recreational opportunities in 1926, named the Superior Roadless Area in 1938, the BWCA in 1958, and federally designated under The Wilderness Act in 1964. It wasn’t until October 21, 1978, The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act was established to provide specific guidance for managing the million plus acres of the Superior National Forest.

The BWCAW has changed little since the glaciers melted. With over 1,500 miles of canoe routes, nearly 2,200 designated campsites, and more than 1,000 lakes and streams waiting, the BWCAW draws over 250,000 visitors each year.

From the Wilderness Act in 1964:


(c) A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation; (3) has at least five thousand acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition; and (4) may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.

Wilderness is Fragile

hansel_bryan_080616-142We face many choices in our lifetimes, and we all try to make the correct choices. Some of the choices that we’ve made stemming from our way of life involves the use of the metals that PolyMet and Franconia Minerals Corporation want to extract from my backyard. I try to do my best to recycle. I try to live my life with limited electronics. I try to live a minimalistic lifestyle. This website site is even about lightweight–minimalistic–canoe and kayak travel. But I also like our modern lifestyle. I like gadgets. I like the products stemming from the metals these mega-corporations want to mine. For me, it becomes a debate between the spirituality of wilderness and the mind driven process of our modern lifestyle. In that debate, wilderness always wins because its so fragile.

hansel_bryan_BWCAW_297Wilderness is fragile, because once the wilderness is gone, it rarely comes back. It disappears when polluted, and it takes a massive amount of work and time for it to return–if it can ever return. When I hiked the Appalachian Trail, I hiked through the Lehigh Gap Superfund site. On a mountain that once was beautiful all that remained was a devastated landscape that looked like the world had died. The devastation at Lehigh Gap occurred because as the Lehigh Gap Nature Center says “decades of air pollution resulting from 20th century industrial zinc smelting in Palmerton through the 1970’s, much of the mountain at the Lehigh Gap Refuge and in surrounding areas was deforested, eroded, and left with high levels of zinc and other heavy metals.” Lehigh Gap serves as an example of how fragile wilderness is and how hard it is to gain back. Despite all the time volunteers toiled away trying to restore the massive devastation at Lehigh Gap–and I very much appreciate their time–they’ve only been able to reintroduce 11 species of native grasses, which they are enhancing with native forbs. Their efforts and successes give us reason to celebrate, but even with all their hard work, the result is a far cry from the species diversity of true wilderness and the original Lehigh Gap mature hardwood forest. Lehigh’s fate is one that the Boundary Waters must avoid.

Losing Wilderness to Pollution

hansel_bryan_BWCAW_265Imagine losing the wilderness and the spirit of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness due to pollution from mine–from a mine using a technique never attempted before in Minnesota’s lake country. Imagine losing the spirit of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness due to a mining technique with a poor track record of being able to stop pollution. Imagine paddling into a lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness to find your pristine lake changed in color to the muddy red of pollution from acid leeching iron from the rocks. Imagine a lifeless Boundary Waters lake. Imagine no fish to catch. Imagine no howl of the wolf. Imagine no call of a loon. Imagine no hoot of an owl. Imagine the only sounds you can hear at night are the constant pounding of drilling, the blasting of mining, and the massive sounds of motorized mining equipment.

It could happen.

Photo: NASA
Photo: NASA
U.S. abolitionist, Wendell Phillips (1811 – 1884) once said, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty–power is ever stealing from the many to the few.” I think conservationists could safely rewrite this quote to read, “Eternal vigilance is the price of wilderness–power is ever stealing from the many to the few.” The American people own the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. We hold the wilderness in trust for the enjoyment of everyone in the world, and we are charged by U.S. Federal law to maintain its wilderness character. It is yours and mine to enjoy, and it’s yours and my responsibility to preserve. If we allow PolyMet Mining and Franconia Minerals Corporation to attempt these sulfide mines, and if or when pollution occurs–the damage occurs–we will have let the powerful few steal our pristine lake country and our precious Lake Superior away from us.

Don’t allow this to happen.

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