Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
Protecting public lands has been a rare and reassuring patch of common ground in this polarized political era.
In 2019, sweeping legislation that created four new national monuments, significantly expanded several national parks and designated 1.3 million acres as wilderness easily cleared Congress and was signed into law by then-President Donald Trump — a commendable win for conservation.
Lawmakers who've returned to Washington for the lame-duck congressional session have an opportunity to build on this popular precedent and should seize it. The need to safeguard natural resources is ongoing. A remedy is also required for a glaring gap in the 2019 legislation — the lack of permanent mining protections for northern Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA).
The BWCA is a world-class resource, one whose interconnected waterways make it especially vulnerable to any downstream pollution from copper-nickel mining, an industry with an abysmal environmental record worldwide. Yet even though a Chilean conglomerate is lobbying hard to open the Twin Metals underground copper mine on the BWCA's doorstep, the 2019 legislation overlooked this fragile wilderness while enacting permanent mining protections near Yellowstone and North Cascades national parks.
The BWCA deserves better. It is the most frequently visited federal wilderness. Its network of lakes and streams offer a unique user experience among the nation's often arid public lands. It merits equal safeguards as Yellowstone and North Cascades. A recently released federal report also makes clear copper mining's threat to this Minnesota wilderness.
The Biden administration has responsibly taken steps to put a 20-year moratorium on mining on roughly 225,000 acres in the BWCA watershed. But the lame-duck session offers a window of time to pass a public lands bill that includes permanent BWCA protections. Or, to include the BWCA measure in other legislation that must pass before the year's end.
Action is also urgent before Republicans assume control of the House in 2023. Minnesota's GOP House members in particular have cozied up to wealthy mining interests, so permanent protections are unlikely to be a priority.
"We have an opportunity now, before the end of this Congress, to do the right thing and preserve this incredibly valuable source of freshwater for future generations," Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., said this week. "It is urgent that Congress establishes permanent protections for the watershed of the Boundary Waters."
McCollum has introduced legislation that it would ban sulfide-ore mining — the process used for copper and nickel — on roughly 234,000 acres in the BWCA watershed. It would still permit mining for granite, gravel, iron ore and taconite, however.
A new poll shows there is strong support in the state for measures like McCollum's. Roughly 7 of 10 Minnesotans surveyed supported permanently protecting the BWCA from sulfide-ore mining. The poll was conducted on behalf of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters advocacy group.
McCollum has been a dogged BWCA champion, but she'll need broader support to get the measure through the House. Strong advocacy is also needed in the Senate, making energetic leadership from Minnesota's U.S. Sens. Tina Smith and Amy Klobuchar vital.
Smith has said permanent protections of some sort are a high priority. "We can't say no to all copper-nickel mining, but we should say no to copper-nickel mining near the Boundary Waters."
Unsurprisingly, Twin Metals Minnesota, which is owned by Antofagasta PLC, issued this statement:
"McCollum fails to recognize that the greatest risk to the BWCA is climate change. Fighting this climate crisis with clean technologies requires the minerals that are abundant in the ground in northern Minnesota. If this bill becomes law, it will deny Minnesotans an opportunity for quality jobs that contribute to meeting the clean energy demands of our state and nation."
It's important to note that McCollum's bill doesn't ban all copper-nickel mining in Minnesota. PolyMet, another northern Minnesota copper-nickel mine proposed outside the BWCA watershed, would be unaffected. In addition, minerals for renewable energy would continue to be mined in more arid locations in the U.S. and within its allies' borders. Climate change can be battled without endangering Minnesota's beloved wilderness.
There are some areas just too risky for copper mining, and the BWCA headwaters is one of them, as the Editorial Board argued in its 2019 special report "Not this mine. Not this location." Minnesotans are weary of the long, bitter fight over Twin Metals. Those who support permanent protections should contact their congressional representatives (the U.S. Capitol switchboard is 202-224-3121) and tell them to keep the BWCA clean and pristine for 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.