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The mining industry scored a major victory in Minnesota Thursday, when the federal government lifted a controversial stay on minerals exploration in national forests just outside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

The announcement fulfills promises President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence made to Republican supporters at separate rallies in Duluth this year, an indication of how mining in Minnesota has become a national political issue.

The decision will open up hundreds of thousands of acres of federal forestlands in northern Minnesota to mining companies looking for copper, nickel and other metals — a step fiercely opposed by environmental advocates who had won the two-year stay in 2016.

At the same time, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who oversees the U.S. Forest Service, halted a federal environmental review to determine whether hard-rock mining in the ecologically sensitive and water-rich area should be banned for 20 years. Such a ban would have given the BWCA environmental protections on a par with those granted to other national treasures such as the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Park.

Copper-nickel mining “might cause serious and irreparable harm to this unique, iconic and irreplaceable wilderness area,” then-chief of the U.S. Forest Service Thomas Tidwell said when the review began.

But the ban would have put what some mining experts estimate is $500 billion worth of copper, nickel and other precious metals deposits off limits for two decades. The forests and lakes in that part of Minnesota lie above a geologic formation known as the Duluth Complex, one of the largest such untapped mineral resources in the world, which holds the promise of a new generation of mining in a region long known for taconite production.

Now, the Forest Service will allow mining exploration to resume just outside the BWCA on 234,000 acres of federal land in the Rainy River watershed.

“We must put our national forests to work for the taxpayers to support local economies and create jobs,” Perdue said in a news release Thursday morning. “We can do these two things at once: protect the integrity of the watershed and contribute to economic growth and stronger communities.”

The announcement was a second, and broader, victory for copper-nickel mining in the region. In late 2017, the Trump administration reversed an Obama-era decision and renewed exploratory leases for Twin Metals Minnesota, a subsidiary of the Chilean mining giant Antofagasta, which is developing an underground mine and processing facility near the BWCA on the Kawishiwi River near Ely.

‘Ignored science and facts’

Thursday’s decision was immediately denounced by Minnesota wilderness advocates — especially the abrupt cancellation of the ongoing environmental review.

“The administration ignored science and facts, and clearly did not complete a promised study on the social, economic and environmental harm that sulfide-ore copper mining would do to America’s most popular wilderness,” the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters said in a written statement.

Becky Rom, an Ely native who founded the group, which was instrumental in winning the environmental review, said the latest decision creates enormous uncertainty for the residents and businesses who rely on the wilderness for their livelihoods. “With this cloud of copper mining next to the BWCA hanging over everyone it makes it difficult for the community to move forward,” she said.

Pete Marshall, director of communications for Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, a separate nonprofit, said every new mine proposal will become an extension of the long, bitter environmental battle that has already divided the state for years. “The likely and dark scenario is that we will have several more Twin Metals-sized fights on the horizon,” he said.

Jobs boom?

But mining interests praised the decision as one that would create badly needed jobs in a part of Minnesota that has suffered economically as the taconite industry declined.

“This is something that is good for Ely, and good for northeast Minnesota,” said Gerald Tyler, executive director of Up North Jobs, a pro-mining advocacy group. “We’re thankful the federal government did what it did.”

It also paves the way for additional multinational mining to enter the state and create a global industry in Minnesota.

“This is much broader than one company,” said Frank Ongaro, executive director of Mining Minnesota, an industry trade group. “This is extremely important because it invites global mineral investments in Minnesota.”

Ongaro pointed out that the federal decision simply allows exploration. Any proposed mines would require federal environmental studies and state permitting reviews, much like the one underway for PolyMet Mining Corp., which hopes to develop an open pit copper-nickel mine near Hoyt Lakes. After nearly 10 years of review that $1 billion project, which lies outside the Rainy River watershed, awaits a final decision on a permit to mine from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Political leaders also voiced polar opposite views on the decision.

U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, a Democrat, pointed out that at a congressional hearing, Perdue vowed to complete the two-year environmental review the Forest Service had begun, saying that he would allow the “sound science” to proceed.

“Today, Secretary Perdue broke his word, bending to political pressure from a foreign mining company and abandoning sound science to give a green light to toxic sulfide-ore mining in the watershed that feeds the BWCA,” McCollum said in a statement.

Republican Rep. Tom Emmer applauded the decision, saying “despite arguments that Washington should make these decisions for us, now Minnesota’s mineral rights are finally restored back to the people of our great state.”

Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394