Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
Anyone who's ever marveled at Yellowstone's mysterious geysers or stood in awe before other parks' magnificent vistas owes a debt to previous generations.
These moments are possible because those who came before recognized that there were special places that needed to remain unspoiled despite the need for timber, minerals and other resources to power a young, industrializing nation.
The challenge in the modern era is much more modest: preserving these natural resources for those yet to come. On Thursday, the Biden administration took a landmark step toward meeting that moral obligation.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland issued a public land order to withdraw 225,504 acres of federally owned land in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) watershed from mineral leasing for 20 years. This effectively bans copper-nickel mining, an industry with an appalling environmental track record, in this fragile area during this time. The administration's move merits celebration by all who cherish our remarkable natural resources, particularly northern Minnesota's beloved watery wilderness.
The BWCA stands out among the nation's often arid national parks. It's a network of connected waterways on which Native Americans and early explorers paddled. It now attracts visitors from around the globe to experience its unparalleled silence, night skies and water that is among the planet's cleanest.
Putting a copper-nickel mine on the shoreline of a lake flowing into this natural gem, as a Chilean-owned mining conglomerate has proposed to do with the Twin Metals Minnesota project, could potentially pollute this delicate ecosystem. This is a new type of mining to Minnesota and carries different risks than the more familiar taconite operations.
Among the concerns: harmful runoff from Twin Metals, a worry exacerbated by northern Minnesota's wet and extreme climate, a very different setting than the dry conditions where these minerals are typically extracted. "The BWCA is not a place to try to manage pollution risks; it is where risk must be rejected altogether,'' the Star Tribune Editorial Board concluded in a 2019 special report.
The Biden administration's action stands in commendable contrast to the Trump administration's repugnant pandering to Twin Metals' Chilean ownership — Antofagasta and the wealthy Luksic family that controls it. Under President Donald Trump, industry lobbyists appointed to run federal agencies halted scientific study of this type of mining's risks and engaged in dubious legal maneuvering to undo BWCA protections begun under President Barack Obama.
Thankfully, critical research was restarted after the 2020 election. Among the key findings are the potential for "acid mine drainage and other water and air pollution,'' the limitations of modern pollution mitigation techniques, and the risk of storing waste at the underground mine's site. Haaland and other officials relied on this analysis to guide the 20-year moratorium announced on Thursday.
Political blowback has been predictable and ill-informed. U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, a Republican representing northern Minnesota, decried the decision as "an attack on our way of life." He's got it backward. Putting a large, risky mine in the BWCA's headwaters would threaten our way of life.
Strengthening mining protections around national parks and other federal lands is nothing new. It was done under the Trump administration for Yellowstone, for example.
It's also important to point out that the Biden move does not impact PolyMet or other Minnesota copper-nickel mines proposed outside the BWCA watershed. This is far from a sweeping shutdown of this type of mining in the state or elsewhere, meaning the metals needed for renewable energy can still be mined domestically. But those projects must also pass scientific muster.
Haaland's order constitutes conscientious natural resources leadership. It also safeguards an already thriving sector of the regional economy — the outfitters, resorts and other businesses that rely on a pristine BWCA. Another leader deserving praise is Becky Rom, an Ely native, grandmother and former attorney who has led this David-vs.-Goliath fight against Antofagasta.
But there's still work to do. Permanent protection still must be implemented to prevent future chicanery from undoing BWCA protections or letting them expire. Legislation authored by U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., would do that and merits swift passage. State lawmakers also must pass Sen. Kelly Morrison's bill to put mining restrictions on state land in the BWCA watershed.
Safeguarding the BWCA's tranquil beauty is a worthy legacy. The Biden administration measure is a historic step toward fulfilling our responsibility to future generations.
Editorial Board members are David Banks, Jill Burcum, Scott Gillespie, Denise Johnson, Patricia Lopez, John Rash and D.J. Tice. Star Tribune Opinion staff members Maggie Kelly and Elena Neuzil also contribute, and Star Tribune Publisher and CEO Michael J. Klingensmith serves as an adviser to the board.