U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen, at odds with most fellow Minnesota Republican politicians over minerals exploration near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, on Friday called on federal officials to reverse the decision to reopen up 234,000 acres of federal forestlands in northern Minnesota to mining companies.
A day after the federal government lifted a controversial stay on minerals exploration in national forests just outside the Boundary Waters, the Eden Prairie lawmaker urged U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to reconsider the decision and restart an environmental review.
"The goal is to make sure science is the guiding force," Paulsen said in an interview Friday. "There was a process underway. Why cut that short?"
Paulsen said he planned to follow up directly with Perdue.
Paulsen is running for re-election in the Third Congressional District, which spans mostly west metro suburbs, in a competitive race with Democrat Dean Phillips, a businessman from Deephaven. Hillary Clinton won the district in the 2016 presidential election, but it has long elected Republicans to Congress.
Now Paulsen is trying to distance himself from President Donald Trump and his administration. Paulsen's first TV ad, released in July, highlighted his opposition to mining near the BWCA. Paulsen was also the only Republican member of the congressional delegation absent from Vice President Mike Pence's visit to the Twin Cities in August, and he didn't attend Trump's rally in Duluth in June.
Phillips agreed Friday that Perdue should reconsider the decision, but he said Paulsen's actions were "window dressing" and that Paulsen should have acted sooner, especially as a leader in the majority party.
"Good strong leadership would have prevented this action," Phillips said, adding that Paulsen's pro-environment voting score with the League of Conservation Voters is 16 percent. "We should protect the Boundary Waters. I hope it's not too late."
Earlier this year, Paulsen voted to support a two-year ban on mining leasing and exploration on the federally owned acres near the Boundary Waters. The moratorium had been initiated under the Obama administration to study the impact of sulfide mining in that region. This year, the Trump administration moved to scale back the study to a smaller environmental assessment.
Then on Thursday, Perdue, who oversees the U.S. Forest Service, halted the environmental review to determine whether hard-rock mining in the ecologically sensitive and water-rich area should be banned for 20 years — a ban that 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.
Perdue's decision now "threatens the Boundary Waters — Minnesota's Yellowstone," Paulsen said Friday, adding that the environmental review had bipartisan support. Paulsen, who went camping and canoeing in the BWCA last weekend and in August, said he often sees license plates from all over the U.S. at access points, showing that it's vital to the state's tourism.
While Paulsen said he supports mining, he said sulfide mining poses a threat "on the doorstep of America's most-visited wilderness area." Paulsen's comments echoed those of fellow U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, a Democrat, who said Thursday that Perdue is "bending to political pressure." Both Paulsen and McCollum are speaking at the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters' Oct. 22 celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act.
Other Republicans such as U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer have applauded the federal government's decision.
"It's about doing the right thing," Paulsen said of his break from Republicans. "It's very important to Minnesota."
Star Tribune staff writer Josephine Marcotty contributed to this report. Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141