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Wilderness and Public Lands: You Own Them

The boreal forest casts reflections onto Lake Four. Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Minnesota.

In the U.S., we have an extensive system of public lands. If we were to average out how many acres each individual U.S. citizen owns, it would be 1.99 acres of federal lands. Many agencies control the public lands, but the primary big four stewards of our lands are the: U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service. The Department of Defense is the fifth largest steward of land. Over the 20 years leading to 2010, federal land ownership declined by 18 million acres, nearly 2.8%.(1 p.15) That means that if you are a U.S. citizen, your government sold off more of your land than they bought to replace it.

The western states have the most federal land compared to the total size of the state, but all states have some federal land. The right-wing political movement sees this as unjust and unfair. They believe that because the western states have more federal land as a percentage of total state land area that they are being penalized by the federal government. They’d point to a state such as Minnesota, which has 5.6% of federal land as a percentage of total state land, and compare it to Colorado, which is 36.6%, and say that the citizens of Minnesota have more rights to use the land. Regardless, some right-wingers feel like they have the right to take the federal land away from the rest of the Americans and privatize it.

Paddling on the Kelso River through lily pads. Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, MN.
Paddling on the Kelso River through lily pads. Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, MN.

You needn’t look to outside of the Midwest to see how what was once a patchwork of homesteaders owning land that they worked has changed into ever larger mega-farms as more successful farmers have bought up the smaller guys and have started to amass major land areas. Some of the richest people in the U.S. hold massive amounts of land. For example, John Malone, majority owner of Liberty Media, owns 2.2 million acres of land. That’s more than twice the size of Delaware! PACs funded and associated with his company give the majority of its political donations to right-wing politicians. According to Open Secrets, the percentage of donations to right-wing politicians is 70 to 80% depending on the PAC. In 2012, the top 25 land owners in America own over 19.5 million acres when taken together (2). That’s more than the Department of Defense.

We talk about America as the land of freedom, and in some regards it is. But, try traveling from the east through the great grasslands and wheat and corn fields of Nebraska. You can see endless horizons as you drive across it roads. You can drive for hours and hours and hours of endless horizons. And then think about how vast and great America is until you realize that you have no freedom to park your car, get out and walk across the land. It’s all private. It’s almost all posted as “No Trespassing.” Your freedom as you pass through that vast greatness is the freedom to drive down the road like cattle being lead to a destination. That destination might be the 5,650 acres held by the U.S. Park Service, but you won’t have any freedom to go anywhere on the landscape except for public lands. And Nebraska only has 1.1% of federal land as a percentage of total state land. Your freedom in Nebraska is basically a cattle pen. In the Scandinavian countries, they give people the Right of Access, “provides everyone with the right of access to privately owned land (provided they abide by the rules), and thus to the pleasures of the forests and countryside from one end of Sweden to the other.” That right makes “No Trespassing” invalid. But in the United States, you don’t have that right. You likely will never have that right in the U.S.

Once you leave Nebraska and drive into Wyoming, you have more freedom to explore the landscape. Wyoming is 48.2% federal land. Once there, you don’t feel trapped and confined by cattle pen roads. You can get out of your car and wanders for 100s of miles. You might share some of that land with loggers, miners and cattle, but that land is your land and it’s managed for multiple different uses, including recreational uses. If the federal government sold off this land, you would likely lose access to it and become confined to cattle pen roads again just like you were in Nebraska. The irony is that the Oregon Trail passed through Nebraska into Wyoming. Those settlers were looking for land and a promise of the American dream. Had more of settlers traveled west, the west would likely have less federal land as the settlers homesteaded.

In March, the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate voted to start selling tracts of our national forests, wilderness areas and wildlife refuges to states. There’s no doubt in my mind how those sales would go. They’d go to the state or private corporations and get accumulated by the wealthiest. It’s a movement to transfer your 1.99 acres of federal land into the pockets of those large land holders. If the Republicans gain control of the Presidency, U.S. Senate and the U.S. House in 2016, you will see this passed. And you will see your land transferred and sold off. Act now by: Signing the petition: Keep our public lands in public hands!

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So, what does this have to do with paddlers?

Dave and Amy Freeman paddle in the BWCAW.
Dave and Amy Freeman paddle in the BWCAW.

Not all the public land in the United States is mountains, grasslands and the arid west. In northern Minnesota, 1.4 million acres of federal land are contained within Voyageurs National Park and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW). Voyageurs is 41% water alone and the BWCAW contains over 1,000 lakes.

Within the BWCAW, there are parcels of land owned by the State of Minnesota. Instead of purchasing the land and compensating Minnesota for that purchase at market value. The U.S. Forest Service is proposing to give away parts of the Superior National Forest to the State of Minnesota.

In 2012, DFL (Democrat, Farmer, Labor) State Rep. David Dill said, “we should mine, log, and lease the hell out of land we get in the [exchange].” He recently doubled down on that statement and said, “What are we supposed to do, hold land so people can walk on it and see a partridge? No – we are going to cut the trees on it, and we should mine it … Once the exchange is done we are going to mine and log the hell out of it.”

It’s not unusual that states manage land differently than the federal government. In Minnesota’s case, we have a Democratic lawmaker saying that they will “mine and log the hell out of it.” Part of the proposed giveaway holds the recreational corridor of the Superior Hiking Trail, one of the top hiking trails in the nation according to Backpacker Magazine. The Superior Hiking Trail is also on the way to be included in the national North Country National Scenic Trail. And the state of Minnesota would “mine and log the hell out of it.” You can tell the U.S. Forest Service Don’t Shrink the Forest.

Besides that several waterways lead into the BWCAW and Voyageurs National Park. There are federal mining leases on some of the federal property and the state is selling mining leases within the same watershed. In the past, ferrous iron mining was done in these areas. But the sulfide rocks in the area also contain copper and the type of mining required to extract that copper has never been done in Minnesota. That type of mining has never been done in an environment as water rich as northern Minnesota. And, that type of mining has a 100% track record of pollution across the world. Minnesotan Congresswoman Betty McCollum explains the issue:

Both Voyageurs and BWCA are federal lands protected by acts of Congress, but within the Rainy River Drainage Basin there are also federal lands with fifty year old mining leases. These leases are now in the hands of one of the largest foreign copper mining companies in the world – Antofagasta – which continues prospecting and exploring the potential for industrial scale mining in the Superior National Forest. Sulfide-ore mining for copper, nickel and other precious metals could take place on thousands of acres, including land that abuts protected wilderness.

Sulfide-ore mining poses a direct threat to the waters of Voyageurs and BWCA from a toxic byproduct called “acid mine drainage.” When sulfide rich ore is mined a chemical reaction occurs that produces sulfuric acid as sulfide rock becomes exposed to oxygen. If sulfide-ore mining is allowed to take place on federal lands in the Rainy River Drainage Basin “acid mine drainage” will endanger Voyageurs and BWCA’s fragile water ecosystem, as well as the tourism economy they support.

Citizens are concerned about this – very concerned. Over the past months I have been contacted by hundreds of 4th District constituents, thousands of Minnesotans, and more than 60,000 Americans from across the country all asking me to do one thing – protect Voyageurs and the BWCA’s waters from mining and its toxic pollution.

To help protect the area, she introduced The National Park and Wilderness Waters Protection Act, which “withdraws federal lands in the Rainy River Drainage Basin from the federal mineral leasing program. But, where federal mineral leases currently exist, my bill will require modern, enforceable conditions on mining companies that protect both the environment and American taxpayers. This bill only applies to waters that flow into Voyageurs and the BWCA.”

Since President Obama was elected, we seen a continuous attack of federal land (See When They Want to Take Away Wilderness and Living in the Last Scrap of the Golden Age of Wilderness Paddling). First, it was far right-wing politicians who found a cause in extremists such as Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who still refuses to pay you for the use of your federal land. There were even armed extremists in standoffs trying to stand behind Bundy, who didn’t want to pay you for the use of your federal lands. Eventually this extremist position spread throughout the entire Republican party. And we haven’t seen much done in the way of protecting land at the federal level. The congresses lead by Congressman John Boehner have been the worst as far as protecting land and the environment.

It’s nice to see someone introducing a bill (even though it probably won’t pass or get a vote in Congressman John Boehner’s House) that protects your land from a usage that isn’t compatible with the local environment. It’s even better to see that someone is willing to protect a world-class destination for paddlers and one of the best parks in the country devoted to water and paddling. We should thank Congresswoman Betty McCollum for introducing the bill. You can take action by telling your Representative and Senators to support The National Park and Wilderness Waters Protection Act.

Note: I’m not 100% opposed to copper mining in the area. I’m opposed to mining with the current technology. The current technology requires 100s of years of water treatment at each mine site (longer than the U.S. has been a nation). The polluted water would be kept in a pond similar to the one that failed in the Canada’s worst mine disaster at the Mount Polley copper mine in British Columbia. In fact, the designer of that pond gave input to the proposed Polymet copper mine in Minnesota. When the mining companies can guarantee that the potential of pollution is equal to the lifespan of the copper mine, I’d be okay with some mining based on what technologies they would use to prevent pollution during the operation of the mine and where those mines will be located.