The Boundary Waters is a special place to me. I had dreamed of going there for years, and finally received the opportunity through my Boy Scout Troop when I was 18. The Troop was comprised of all of my friends, including Chris, who became my oldest son’s godfather, and nearly a brother to me. Chris and I always talked of going back to the Boundary Waters, but work, the military and school stepped in the way. Sadly, we never made it back together. His life was cut short, and at 24 he passed away before we could make it back up there.
Fast forward to 2011. I was deployed with the Minnesota National Guard 34th ID 194 CAV to Kuwait and Iraq. My platoon and section was responsible for convoy security operations during the drawdown of the Iraq war. We were very lucky, and did not have any severe incidents, but were still exposed to the strain of being deployed in a combat zone.
Upon returning home, I made the decision to go back to the Boundary Waters. I thought my oldest son was old enough, and I longed to go back. I rediscovered Entry Point 37, on Kawishiwi Lake, the original entry point I had set out from with Chris and the other Scouts in 1998. That experience sparked an annual trip out of this entry point, in memory of Chris, as well as multiple trips out of Ely with my son's Boy Scout Troop.
While I do not suffer from PTSD as a result of my service, I do have some stress and issues with people that I attribute to my time in the service. I found that the Boundary Waters provides an instant healing and calming effect over my body. When I arrive, the calming begins. Upon touching the water, nature takes over and I almost go into sensory overload taking everything in; feeling calm and "normal” again. I have talked to other veterans, from Vietnam to the current conflicts, and the Boundary Waters has a similar effect on them. Not too many places on Earth have the ability to remove one from a troubled state of mind into a state of peace and calming.
When I first started going back to the BWCA, I found it much like I remembered. I also found out that Twin Metals and other companies were proposing to build sulfide-ore copper mines near the Boundary Waters’ edge. I will admit, at first I was naive, and sympathetic to the cause of the mines. I took it upon myself to do further research and was shocked by what I found. I couldn’t believe how close in proximity exploratory drilling was taking place to the BWCA--literally on the edge of this sanctuary of nature and peace. I found that the byproduct of this type of mining, sulfuric acid, has significant dangers associated with it. The video of the Mount Polley Disaster was the tipping point for me. I was shocked and in awe of the damage that was caused when a tailings pit wall gave way. They have destroyed some of Canada’s most pristine wilderness forever. I was appalled to discover that the engineering firm that managed the Mount Polley tailings pond when it failed has done work for Twin Metals. I have found many cases of mines similar to this going bankrupt, leaving taxpayers to pay the price for cleanup, and dealing with permanently scarred land.
I decided to take a stand, and became involved with the Save the Boundary Waters Veterans Group. Here, I found like-minded veterans who suffer from PTSD and who have also been saved by the healing qualities of the BWCA. They too want it to be kept a pure wilderness. One of my missions after exiting the military service is helping veterans with PTSD, and preventing veteran suicide. I believe that a place like the BWCA can help deter the negative effects of PTSD. I know many veterans who have attended Voyageur Outward Bound School (VOBS) on the edge of the BWCA, and adjacent to the proposed Twin Metals mine site. Twin Metals and other companies have drilled extensively and flown helicopters in the vicinity of VOBS, the noise from which can cause stress and trigger relapse to veterans with PTSD who have been injured by IED blasts.
A person shouldn’t have to be exposed to this when they are trying to heal. This is one of the many reasons sulfide-ore copper mining should be kept away from the BWCA. There is so much information out there about why this type of mining is dangerous for our environment, especially in this close proximity to water; but the healing factor is so strong for me. I would hate to see the wilderness ruined, especially since it has helped so many like myself.
I feel, as a whole, we need to protect this natural resource and wilderness that we are privileged to have. The Wilderness Act set aside this area for a reason. Over and over, the BWCA has been helping veterans and it would be a shame to destroy it. Especially since those who served, both at home and overseas, are fighting hard to protect it. I think we owe our veterans some thanks by protecting this area and allowing veterans to continue to be healed by the awesome beauty, tranquility and solitude it affords. I hope we can continue to preserve this treasure for generations to come so that my son's sons and daughters and their children and grandchildren can continue to enjoy the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. We owe it to ourselves.
Nick Millette is from Pine City, MN. He is a former staff sergeant for the Minnesota Army National Guard. B Troop 194 CAV
[Photos by Adam Steinhilber]
The morning fog is drifting to the east end of Hungry Jack Lake and the sun is peeking through the pines behind me as a Whiskey Jack circles my head. This bird, commonly known as a Gray Jay, is a frequent uninvited guest due to his “camp robber” tendencies and our recent discovery of missing food items.
We’ve just completed shooting on two short films focused on fishing and hunting in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. These “shorts” will support Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters to bring awareness to the threats posed by proposed sulfide-ore copper mining on the Boundary Water’s edge. In Fish Out of Water, we bring two Twin Cities chefs on their first trip to the Boundary Waters where they learn to paddle, portage and fish. In Flush in the Wild, we take an Iraq War Veteran on his first grouse hunt. With cameras rolling, we were able to capture some great adventures and some amazing meals prepared over the fire by these talented chefs.
Save the Date for the release party for the Fish Out of Water film series, which will be held at Steel Toe Brewing on November 16 in partnership with Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and make sure to RSVP on Facebook or by emailing us.
As I reflect on our days in the Wilderness I go back to the crisp and picturesque fall weather, but more importantly to the warmth of new friendships. And in the end, that’s really what makes the Boundary Waters special - connecting with people while wrapped in the solitude of these lakes, rivers and forest.
Raw wilderness has an uncanny way of clearing your head of daily worries and relaxing stress-laden muscles. You’re able to focus on the present, whether it’s listening to a friend tell her story about the fish that got away, or describing the beaver that crossed the bay the night before as he added a new poplar branch to his ever-expanding house.
This place truly is “owned” by every American, and with the benefits of ownership comes a responsibility to protect it from threats that could destroy the very essence of what makes it unique. So, share your BWCA story with others, get educated on the threats of sulfide-ore copper mining and why it’s different from other types of mining here in Minnesota. Please take action in support of Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters and protecting this great wilderness for remote hunting and angling.
Mark Norquist is a member of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and owner of GreenHead Productions. He is executive producer for our two film projects, Fish Out of Water and Flush In the Wild.
As you know, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is a beloved canoeing, fishing and hiking destination, known around the world for its wild landscape, deep silence and opportunities for solitude. Those qualities are threatened by Twin Metals mining company’s proposal to drill hundreds of wells as it seeks to develop a massive sulfide-ore copper mine on the edge of the Boundary Waters. The threat is mounting now, and you can take action today through the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters.
Earlier this month, the US Forest Service released an Environmental Assessment of Twin Metals’ request to begin drilling hydrogeologic wells on Superior National Forest land. Twin Metals itself argues that the hydrogeologic study is necessary so it can develop its proposed mine on the edge of the Wilderness. We’re concerned that in acting only on the application, the Forest Service’s Environmental Assessment ignored the devastating impacts that mining itself would have on the Boundary Waters and the communities it supports. By dodging this opportunity to study the cumulative impacts of mining-related activities, the Forest Service has acted in a way that will allow these harmful impacts to the Superior National Forest and Boundary Waters to multiply until their wild characteristics are fatally undermined and permanently lost.
The proposed drilling program, combined with previously approved exploratory drilling, is estimated to subject 6,968 acres of the Boundary Waters Wilderness to drilling and mechanical noise. A total of 13,406 acres of the Superior National Forest open to recreation (including the Boundary Waters Wilderness acreage) would be impacted by the noise. Instead, the Forest Service should assess the impacts of sulfide-ore copper mining on America’s most popular Wilderness before allowing mining companies to carve up the Superior National Forest and threaten the solitude of the Boundary Waters.
We hope that you will take action to ask the Forest Service to use common sense: assess the impacts of sulfide-ore copper mining before allowing companies to riddle the Superior National Forest with more holes.
This proposal is just the tip of the iceberg. We're counting on your continued support to make sure we protect the clean water and unspoiled forests of the Boundary Waters for this and future generations.
Here’s the message you can send to the US Forest Service today by taking action (there’s also the option to edit this or write your own). The comment period closes November 9.
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Superior National Forest are irreplaceable national treasures. The watershed of the nation’s most popular Wilderness is an inappropriate place to site sulfide-ore copper mines, which have a consistent history of toxic pollution.
As the Twin Metals Minnesota Hydrogeologic Study Special Use Permit Environmental Assessment (EA) acknowledges, the Forest Service must preserve the wilderness character of the Boundary Waters (“untrammeled,” “undeveloped,” “natural” and presenting “opportunities for solitude”). Allowing sulfide-ore copper mines to be sited along the edge of the Boundary Waters would have major negative environmental and economic impacts, including harm to the wilderness character of the Boundary Waters. The EA inappropriately limits its scope to solely consider the impacts of the proposed hydrogeologic study special use permit and not the impacts of the mining activities that it is designed to bring about. Instead, the EA should include sulfide-ore copper mining as a reasonably foreseeable connected action; Twin Metals Minnesota would not propose the hydrogeologic study if it did not seek to develop a massive sulfide-ore copper mine on the edge of the Boundary Waters.
In addition to the inappropriately limited scope of the EA, the proposed drilling would have unacceptable impacts to the wilderness character of the Boundary Waters for sustained lengths of time. Twenty-four hour drilling for up to 4 weeks at a time for 6-18 months would severely impair opportunities for solitude, especially when combined with the already approved exploratory drilling programs. Drilling noise would disrupt recreation opportunities on 13,406 acres of the Superior National Forest (including 6,968 acres within the Boundary Waters), which would impact a significant number of summer and winter users. The number of both summer and winter visitors impacted by drilling should be kept at a minimum.
Finally, should the special use permit be approved, it is essential that the hydrogeological data collected by Twin Metals be shared in a digital, useable form (i.e., Excel spreadsheet instead of static PDF) with both the agencies and the public. If Twin Metals is allowed to abuse public lands, it must share its results with the public.
Please take action today in helping protect this beloved national wilderness. Add your comment to express your concerns. There’s more work to do, but this is an important step in our efforts to gain permanent protection for this watershed.
Rachel Garwin is the Campaign's policy director. She holds an M.S. in Natural Resources from the University of Vermont. Every month, Science Desk will include our latest scientific support and share a deeper understanding of the potential environmental impact from sulfide-ore copper mining near the Boundary Waters.
This piece, written by Scott Hed of Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters, originally ran in the October 2015 issue of Adventure Sports Outdoors and is reprinted here with permission.
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northeastern Minnesota is America’s most visited Wilderness area. This beloved canoe country contains more than 1 million acres of pristine water and unspoiled woodlands, home to fish and wildlife. Along with the Superior National Forest, the BWCA contains 20 percent of all the fresh water in the entire National Forest System. That prized water is what supports the walleye, bass, pike and lake trout that draw anglers to the area.
More accessible than most Wilderness areas, the Boundary Waters annually attracts more than 250,000 people of all ages, interests and abilities. It is an especially popular destination for adventure seekers from the Midwest, the quintessential “Up North” experience.
Photos: Brian O'Keefe, Tim Brass (Backcountry Hunters & Anglers) and Darrell Spencer
The Boundary Waters is home base to the Boy Scouts of America’s (BSA) oldest national High Adventure program - Northern Tier - which has served generations of Boy Scouts since its founding in 1941. Northern Tier outfits 4,000 scouts on wilderness canoe trips each year from its Charles L. Sommers Wilderness Canoe Base outside Ely. For very hearty souls, scouts can also participate in the BSA’s premier winter camping program through the National Cold Weather Camping Development Center from the Sommers Base. Scouts travel by foot, cross country skis, snowshoes, and even dog sled on this adventure of a lifetime.
The Boundary Waters is also a crucial driver of the economy in Northeastern Minnesota. According to the Iron Range Resources & Rehabilitation Board, tourism in Northeastern Minnesota supports 18,000 jobs and brings $850 million in sales annually to the region. At the edge of the Boundary Waters, the town of Ely, Minnesota, has been recognized as one of America’s best towns for fishing and hunting by both Field & Stream and Outdoor Life magazines, the latter of which called Ely a “pike and walleye fisherman’s paradise.”
But now this priceless fish and game habitat is jeopardized by a new and dangerous threat.
The Boundary Waters wilderness edge is threatened by proposals for sulfide-ore copper mining, a risky mining practice never done before in Minnesota.
Photos: David Lein (with 8-pointer in 2013), Michael Dvorak (2) and Brian O'Keefe (below)
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has recognized sulfide-ore mining as America’s most toxic industry. It produces giant waste piles that, when exposed to air and water, leach sulfuric acid, heavy metals and sulfates.
The proposed sulfide-ore copper mines would be located upstream from the Boundary Waters and threaten to permanently pollute fishing and hunting areas, harm wildlife and harm the regional economy. Dr. Tom Myers, a hydrologist, says, “... it is not a question of whether, but when, a leak will occur that will have major impacts on the water quality of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.” Due to the massive amount of interconnected water in the region, it’s not hard to imagine sulfide-ore copper mining pollution impacting the Boundary Waters, Voyageurs National Park, and even Quetico Provincial Park in Canada.
To keep the Boundary Waters untainted for future generations of anglers and hunters, we need to urge decision makers to carefully consider what is best for the future of this area and the preservation of these wild lands and waters.
Hunters and anglers who paddle and portage their way into the Boundary Waters know that the landscape there is home to many amazing creatures, such as bears, wolves, deer, moose, loons, grouse waterfowl, walleye, pike, trout, bass and more.
Fishing for supper after a long day on the water, frying up a shore lunch with family, teaching kids to fish or carrying out a prized trophy animal are all unique experiences. To preserve these wild experiences means keeping the areas on the wilderness edge from turning into industrial mining districts and keeping the water quality as pristine as possible, so you can still drink right from the lake.
This issue is attracting the attention of America’s angling and hunting community. So far, protection for the Boundary Waters is supported by the Pope & Young Club, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, National Wildlife Federation, Izaak Walton League of America, International Federation of Fly Fishers, Wildlife Forever, Orion - The Hunter’s Institute, Wildlife Forever, and a growing list of other groups and businesses.
To preserve the wilderness in which you love to hunt, fish and camp you must take action. Tell your friends, family, and fishing and hunting buddies to speak up for Boundary Waters experiences they love and spread the word about the risks facing this habitat.
Urge your legislators to review the science, get informed and consider how these productive habitats deserve to be preserved for future generations.
This piece, written by Javier Serna, assistant editor, originally ran in the October 8, 2015, issue of Outdoor News and is reprinted here with permission.
Dave and Amy Freeman’s expeditions have been dictated by distance and deadlines, measured by miles.
In their latest quest, which they launched on Sept. 23, they will run the clock out
Amy and Dave Freeman paddle the Kawishiwi River as part of a planned year-long trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area inside the boundaries of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
They are planning to spend an entire year in the BWCAW, in hope they can raise the kind of awareness that would thwart mining proposals that are feared would harm the beloved border country.
“This journey is about bearing witness to the wilderness and helping people understand what a special place it is,” Dave Freeman said.
The Freemans are not new to wilderness expeditions, having completed several major treks around the globe since 2005.
Last year, they traveled by canoe and sailboat from their Ely home near the BWCAW to Washington, D.C., a trip that was also part of the Save the Boundary Waters campaign, which, in opposing mining inside the watershed shared by the BWCAW, is backed by several environmental and conservation groups, including the Minnesota Conservation Federation and the Izaak Walton League of America.
It was during that trip that the Freemans began to think about and plan to spend a year inside the BWCAW. The 38-year-old Dave Freeman, who was raised in the suburbs outside of Chicago and first visited the Boundary Waters when he was a teenager, said it’s something he’s thought about for a long time.
“The idea really solidified then,” Dave Freeman said. “We talked about what we could do because we realized that the next year is really critical in the protection of the Boundary Waters. We wanted to put it all out on the table and do as much as we could do.”
It wasn’t the first time the couple had talked about it.
“When he (originally) shared the idea with me, I said, ‘That would be neat. We should do that sometime,’” Amy Freeman said. “We have the skill set to go out traveling, camping for a long period of time. We are not lawyers, but we are equipped to communicate in places where there is no cell phone signal. We feel like we’re using the unique skills that we have to work to protect this place. There are different roles that need to be filled in this battle.”
The couple plans on posting bits and pieces (video, photographs and stories) of their journey frequently on the Internet – five times a week. Using solar panels and energy storage coupled with satellite connections, the couple will be able to connect to the Internet and to social media.
While the Forest Service has also issued the Freemans a research permit (the Freemans will be collecting water samples from many lakes), and a commercial filming permit (they will be broadcasting their journey through Wilderness Classroom) they plan on using a single overnight paddle permit that anyone would. These permits have no time limit, said Kris Reichenbach, a spokesperson for the Superior National Forest, who pointed out that they become invalid once a permit’s “trip leader” leaves the Boundary Waters, and that 14 days is the maximum amount of time a party may stay in a particular campsite.
Since the Freemans plan on visiting all three sections of the wilderness, which are not contiguous, they can do it all on the same permit as long as they take a direct route between the sections, without spending a night outside the BWCAW and without stopping in town or anywhere to resupply themselves, Reichenbach said.
The Freemans plan on staying at about 120 campsites and traveling roughly 3,000 miles using either a canoe, hiking shoes, snowshoes, skis, and dog sleds.
“We do want to try to get to all of the major lakes, all of the major travel routes, and as many obscure lakes as we can,” Amy Freeman said.
They will rely on volunteers to resupply them with food throughout the trip, something they are expecting about every two weeks, except for the two particularly dicey times for Boundary Waters travel after the lakes freeze in the fall and when they break up around spring. At those points, they will receive five-week supplies, so that volunteers can avoid having to take any chances traveling in sketchy conditions. The volunteers will also switch out their gear, from canoes to a three-dog sled team, then back to canoes.
Despite years of extensive expeditions, the longest the couple has been away from civilization is about six weeks, when they paddled from Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories to Lake Athabasca in Saskatchewan.
“I think the disconnect from family and friends, that’s what we’ll feel the most,” said Amy Freeman, mentioning that the departure day was probably the last time she will see her parents until they meet up in the spring, something like a five-month break.
The solitude, on day two of their trip, had already hit them, as the wilderness area largely clears out of visitors after Labor Day, though there are visitors year-round.
“There was so much hullabaloo before we took off,” Amy Freeman said. “It was a really big release when it was suddenly just the two of us in a canoe. It feels pretty good, that solitude.”
Dave Freeman said he’ll look forward to interactions with resupply volunteers, along with random encounters with other visitors.
“A year is a long time,” he said. “I know there are going to be some times throughout the year, it’s hard to know when, when we will have low points. We are hoping to get through those times.”
That sacrifice will be worth it, if the BWCAW and the watershed it sits in is ultimately protected from mining, he said.
“What we are doing is much bigger than us,” he said.
With October nearly at hand, we at the Campaign have heard story upon story of the summer’s exciting adventures into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Our interns, supporters on college campuses across the state, family members and friends have regaled us with tales of delicious walleye and paddling and portaging through Minnesota’s beloved canoe country.
These stories are told with a twinkle in the eye and smile on the face that convey much more than entertainment. Most Boundary Waters lovers understand intuitively that experiences in the wilderness also offer a wide range of personal benefits, from stress relief to building confidence to spending valuable family time together. What many don’t know, however, is that researchers have studied and documented these benefits for decades.
Researchers have divided the benefits from wilderness into three main categories:
Personal (e.g., the benefits felt by individuals who have experienced wilderness)
Social (e.g., aggregated personal benefits to the societal level or a non-user’s knowledge that wilderness is protected in the country)
Intrinsic (e.g., the value felt by animal and plant species that rely on large, intact habitats such as the Boundary Waters)
While social and intrinsic benefits are also important, personal benefits are the ones that fuel the most stories about the Boundary Waters. When a teenager returns from a Boundary Waters canoe trip organized by a faith group or summer camp boasting of newfound skills and inseparable bonds with her groupmates, she is the poster child for the developmental benefits of wilderness. These include changes in self-concept (how one understands oneself), self-actualization (the belief in one’s ability to achieve goals), and self-confidence, among others.
As a former wilderness expedition instructor in the Boundary Waters, I used to marvel at the pride with which my teenaged students showed me the knots they’d learned to tie a few days prior. Knot-tying is a small skill with little application in the frontcountry, but when my students persisted in trying to improve at it, they learned that they were able to learn new skills and overcome challenges. The same was true for all of the other skills necessary to travel and live comfortably in the wilderness, which encouraged my students to learn and perform their daily tasks to the best of their abilities. Mosquitoes and rain storms were especially compelling.
But anecdotes aren’t the only evidence to support the importance of nature. Decades of research have shown the wide range of personal benefits that stem from wilderness. These include developmental benefits (e.g., change in self-concept, self-actualization, skill development, etc.), therapeutic benefits, physical health benefits, self-sufficiency benefits, social identity benefits, educational benefits, spiritual benefits, esthetic and creativity benefits, and symbolic benefits (Driver et al., 1987).
More specifically, studies have found that it is common to gain confidence by learning new skills and overcoming challenges thought impossible (Arnould & Price, 1993). Relating with others day after day while trying to accomplish a common goal helps individuals develop a sense of identity and belonging in a group, so much so that the creation of community often becomes a central theme in a wilderness experience (Arnould & Price, 1993; Driver et al., 1987; Roggenbuck & Driver, 2000). A study of outfitters and guides also found that those tied to wilderness for commercial gain saw the powerful, positive role wilderness plays in people’s lives (Parker & Avant, 2000).
Organized programs for youth, families, veterans and other specific populations use the wild settings of the Boundary Waters to facilitate meaningful experiences for their participants. The wilderness itself can play a vital role in the participants’ education, as it provides the unexpected--and often challenging--circumstances that the participants must learn to overcome.
Additionally, the Boundary Waters is ideally suited to host groups of people from a variety of backgrounds. Due to its relatively low technical requirements, the Boundary Waters welcomes those who only know the rudiments of camping, canoeing and navigation and don’t have the resources to acquire necessary but expensive equipment. When was the last time you heard of someone needing a climbing harness or avalanche beacon to traverse it? Whether these participants are middle school students learning what they’re capable of in a YMCA camp, teens learning that college is within their reach through an Upward Bound program, or veterans experiencing the support of community in the wilderness with Voyageur Outward Bound School or Wilderness Inquiry, they can learn much from the wilderness character of the Boundary Waters.
It’s no secret that the Boundary Waters is the nation’s most heavily visited wilderness area, but what we can sometimes forget how lucky Minnesota and the Midwest Region is to have such an incredible and iconic place in their own backyard. A reasonable drive can deliver people from all over the region to the edge of a nationally beloved wilderness area that offers unlimited opportunities for self-discovery, self-confidence building and restoration of the body and soul. The Boundary Waters is ideally suited to offer the personal, social, and intrinsic benefits that decades of research show result from protecting wilderness, and Minnesota has the responsibility for keeping it that way.
Have you had a personally significant experience in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness? If so, we’d love to hear about it! You can share your story with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For Further Reading:
Arnould, E. J., & Price, L. L. (1993). River magic: extraordinary experience and the extended service encounter. Journal of Consumer Research, 20, 24–45.
Driver, B., Nash, R., & Haas, G. (1987). Wilderness Benefits: A State-of-Knowledge Review. In R. C. Lucas (Ed.), Proceedings--National Wilderness Research Conference: Issues, State-of-Knowledge, Future Directions. Paper 78. (pp. 294–319). Ogden, UT: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Intermountain Research Station.
Parker, J. D., & Avant, B. (2000). In Their Own Words: Wilderness Values of Outfitter / Guides. In S. F. McCool, D. N. Cole, W. T. Borrie, & J. O’Loughlin (Eds.), Wilderness science in a time of change conference--Volume 3: Wilderness as a place for scientific inquiry; 1999 May 23-27; Missoula, MT. Proceedings RMRS-P-15-VOL-3. (pp. 196–201). Ogden, UT: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station.
Roggenbuck, J. W., & Driver, B. L. (2000). Benefits of Nonfacilitated Uses of Wilderness Purposes. In S. F. McCool, D. N. Cole, W. T. Borrie, & J. O’Loughlin (Eds.), Wilderness science in a time of change conference--Volume 3: Wilderness as a place for scientific inquiry; 1999 May 23-27; Missoula, MT. Proceedings RMRS-P-15-VOL-3. (pp. 33–49). Ogden, UT: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station.
Rachel Garwin holds an M.S. in Natural Resources from the University of Vermont. Every month, Science Desk will include our latest scientific support and share a deeper understanding of the potential environmental impact from sulfide-ore copper mining near the Boundary Waters. [top photos courtesy of Olivia Ridge; bottom photo by Rachel Garwin]
This artice first ran in the Backcountry Hunters & Anglers Backcountry Journal and is reprinted here with permission from the BHA.
I RETURNED HOME from serving in Vietnam 50 years ago this November. Back on American soil, it didn’t take me long to meet a nice young lady and start making canoe trips into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
In the late ’60s I started working in the iron mines of northern Minnesota. When I pulled shift work, I would get off a midnight shift at 8 a.m. Thursday morning and not need to be back for afternoon shift until 4 p.m. the next Tuesday. It was almost a six-day weekend. My wife, Pat, the nice young lady, would have the packs ready to go Thursday morning. By sunset, our tent would be set up in the BWCAW – often near the U.S.-Canadian border.
This million-acre swath became wilderness with passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964, the year before I returned from Vietnam. Seventy-five percent of the area is off limits to motorized boat traffic, including over 1000 miles of canoe routes.
When I started working in Minnesota’s iron mines, I had little reason to suspect that I’d soon enough be living downstream of pollution from waste rock that I helped generate. Minnesota has a non-degradation clause in statute, but loopholes allowed the mines to discharge tons of heavy metals into our public waters. They did so for many decades.
As the years went by, I learned that the tailings ponds for the mines had their dikes built out of coarse tailings, which leaked millions of gallons of processed water every day. There are mines in Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range leaking into all three major watersheds in Northern Minnesota: Lake Superior, Mississippi River and Boundary Waters.
It’s disappointing that PolyMet, one of the corporations proposing copper-nickel mines on a sulfide ore body in the region, wants to dump its copper mining waste on top of iron mining waste in a leaking tailings pond left over from a bankrupt iron mining operation. The company’s proposal has been rejected twice, being called “inadequate and unacceptable.” More than 52,000 public comments were submitted on the second draft of the environmental review. A miningtruth.org analysis of the comments found that 98 percent of them were opposed to the mine proposal.
Even closer to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, another sulfide mine has been proposed by a subsidiary of Antofagasta PLC, a Chilean-based mining conglomerate, and Duluth Metals Limited, a Canadian company. This ore deposit sits only three miles away from the wilderness area, upstream in the watershed. Mining representatives claim that they have a 5 billion ton ore body. Being that it’s less than 1 percent copper, I think we’re reasonable in requesting to know where the 99 percent waste is going to go.
Pat and I often have a couple trolling rods out when we paddle through Boundary Waters lakes. Fresh walleye or Northern pike is a great addition to pack food, but we always have to be concerned about mercury levels in our fish. Ten percent of the babies born in the Lake Superior watershed of Minnesota have elevated levels of mercury in their blood.
We know that a lot of mercury comes from natural sources, but that mercury is methylated by sulfates from our iron mines. It’s methylated mercury that moves up the food chain. Sulfates also destroy beds of wild rice, and our neighbors on the reservation are fighting to protect their traditional food, too. Sulfides, from copper mining, react with air and water to create sulfuric acid – another substance you don’t want to find in your drinking water.
Mining always exists on a boom-and-bust cycle, but I’ve never believed that we should sacrifice water quality to create a job for me or any other American – especially temporary jobs. I started out working in the mines and by retirement time, was working on wind farms. We can demand clean energy and clean mines. We can force our economic system to respect our values and create decent, clean jobs.
Bob, 73, is a retired mining electrician and Vietnam War veteran. He is a BHA life member and still can carry a canoe across a portage. Bob and Pat spend a lot of time at the Minnesota legislature where Bob testifies in support of clean water and wild places.
As Ron Meador notes in MinnPost this week, it is an unrelated yet bizarre coincidence that the Animas River in Durango, Colorado, turned an eerie shade of mustard-yellow a few days after the one-year anniversary of Mount Polley copper mine’s tailings dam failure. Instead of the week being dominated by Mount Polley retrospectives, headlines are recounting a homegrown mining disaster a hundred years in the making. Though these mines are not in Minnesota, they have great bearing on proposals to dig into sulfide-bearing ore to extract copper and nickel. They are shocking displays of what can--and often does--go wrong in the hardrock mining industry, and should serve as a warning for those considering the impacts of placing sulfide-ore copper mines in the watershed of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Voyageurs National Park. PHOTO: Jerry McBride/Durango Herald/AP
A year ago last week, the Mount Polley copper mine tailings dam burst unexpectedly and catastrophically. News reports called the breach “Canada’s worst mine disaster," and to this day, the long term environmental impact of the spill is unknown. As of April 2015, water flowing out of Hazeltine Creek into Quesnel Lake still had significantly elevated heavy metal concentrations and water in the Quesnel River, downstream of the lake, was still too murky for residents to drink. Heavy metals had built up in the sediment at the bottom of the lake, as well, giving rise to the concern that there will be additional pulses of metals as the lake water and sediments turn over and mix during natural seasonal variations, according to the Vancouver Sun. To make matters worse, the breach altered the very physical characteristics of Hazeltine Creek: it now resembles more of a carved rock canyon than a stream. Mount Polley shows us the potential for an unexpected catastrophic infrastructure failure at a modern mine operated by a company with an otherwise good reputation in a country with supposedly advanced mining regulations and environmental protection requirements. We have learned, however, that disasters happen even in those best-case circumstances. PHOTO: Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press
Before the Gold King Mine in Colorado released a torrent of acidic water into the Animas River, I had planned to follow up the Mount Polley anniversary notes with observations of other mines across North America that have made the news for unexpected releases of polluted materials into their surrounding environments. These fall into the category of contamination considered to be less individually severe but that occur more frequently than a catastrophic failure like the one at Mount Polley. For instance, British Columbia shut down the Yellow Giant underground gold mine on Banks Island in mid-July 2015 for releasing polluted materials into lakes, creeks and a wetland. Yellow Giant had only been operating for three months before it released an “unauthorized” discharge in March, and again released effluent and tailings in June and July. The same article references additional small spills occurring at the Myra Falls and Copper Mountain mines in British Columbia in the last year as well. These run-of-the-mine (as it were) spills fit into a larger context of the industry’s frequent leaks and spills due to infrastructure failure, human error or unexpected conditions. To some extent, these releases are simply expected to occur -- thus the distinction between an “authorized” and an “unauthorized” discharge.
What happens when polluted material makes it into the creeks, lakes, streams, wetlands and groundwater that surround a mine? It becomes incredibly difficult to monitor and clean up. Ask residents of Butte, Montana, who are locked in a debate with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over whether a plume of metal-contaminated leach water is creeping toward the Silver Bow Creek, part of which was recently restored. Experts in mine waste remediation cannot agree what to do with the Parrot mine’s pile of tailings that has sat in the center of town since at least 1906. Over 100 years later, residents still fear the uncontrolled underground spread of contaminants, and must live with the toxic legacy of one the nation’s largest mining booms.
A similar theme can be found in the in-depht articles discussing the Gold King mine spill. As Jonathan Thompson reported in High Country News, water pollution has been ongoing since miners first started digging up minerals in the Animas River watershed in the 1870s. A complicated series of corporate responsibility handoffs and ultimately legal and technical difficulties allowed water to build up in three mines, including the Gold King. Contaminated water seeped out of them, untreated, into tributaries of the Animas River. The EPA, in its efforts to address the thorny, complex problem of ongoing runoff, proved just how difficult it is to clean up mine waste: it accidentally triggered an even larger spill of an estimated 3 million gallons of acidic mine seepage water and sludge that turned the Animas River orange. The complexity of the issue is truly stunning, and it is instructive how promises of mitigation, remediation and responsibility for water treatment in perpetuity ring false.
Mt. Polley. Yellow Giant. Myra Falls. Copper Mountain. Parrot. Gold King. Though these mines are far away from the Boundary Waters, we must learn from their failures. If we don’t, then the pristine water of the Boundary Waters and Voyageurs National Park will be at risk for decades --and centuries--of contamination. As the diverse array of mine failures in the past year has shown us, the complexity of mining pollution makes prevention and clean-up incredibly difficult. The only fail-safe way to protect the Boundary Waters and Voyageurs from sulfide-ore copper mining pollution is to prevent it from occurring in their watershed in the first place.
Rachel Garwin holds an M.S. in Natural Resources from the University of Vermont. Every month, Science Desk will include our latest scientific support and share a deeper understanding of the potential environmental impact from sulfide-ore copper mining near the Boundary Waters.
By now, you’ve no doubt heard that Twin Metals proposes to build a massive underground mine on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and upstream from Voyageurs National Park. Minnesota Public Radio described the resulting operation as a “vast underground city.” Though used to downplay concerns about the impact of the mining activity, the underground design still leaves plenty of pathways for significant negative environmental impact. Putting aside the fact that Twin Metals’ own Pre-Feasibility Statement states that the Maturi Southwest deposit “will likely be mined to the surface at some point in the future” (see PFS [PDF], page 14-30), it is crucial to understand the multitude of ways an underground mine will still impact the surface.
Two months ago, we detailed the toxic leaks, seeps and spills that are likely to occur. These byproducts result from surface waste storage ponds; the tailings storage facility slated to hold 234 million tons of toxic tailings; the tailing pipelines throughout the area; and even from the underground caverns themselves.
Last month, we discussed the habitat loss and fragmentation from paste plants; a 1,000-acre concentrator plant facility; a 7,000-acre tailings storage facility; and increased traffic. What would that surface infrastructure look like, and what impact would it have on the environment? Underground mine infrastructure from other parts of the world, such as the world’s largest underground copper mine in El Teniente, Chile, (pictured left) can give us a sense.
Other infrastructure would include four paste plants built above the Maturi and Maturi Southwest deposits. These industrial plants would mix tailings, cement and fly ash before the mixture is then pumped underground. Thirteen ventilation facilities are currently planned to be built, to ensure miners deep underground have sufficient air to breathe, and these systems can be quite large. The axial-flow ventilation at the Kriel coal mine in South Africa (pictured right, photo courtesy of Dr. Steven Bluhm) and the Turf No. 3 Vent Shaft at Newmon’s Leeville underground mine in Nevada (pictured left, below) are some examples of ventilation facilities used with this type of mining.
Besides the destructive physical footprint and negative visual impact of these facilities, they would have a noticeable noise impact. Fans from the ventilation facilities, diesel engines from round-the-clock truck transport and even surface crushing of ore (for at least 13 years) would drown out the natural sounds of the Northwoods. In addition to disturbing human environment, the constant and continued noise pollution could have severe impacts to wildlife.
Studies have shown that noise alone can harm birds, as detailed in a recent New York Times article. When researchers built a phantom road out of speakers, birds affected by the noise had significantly less body weight when the road was “on” than when it was “off.” The researchers in that study and others hypothesize that when too much noise drowns out the early warning systems birds and other animals use to warn of predators, they spend too much time worried about being eaten and not enough time looking for food. Combined with a harsh northern Minnesota winter, the impacts of such constant noise could be disastrous.
These examples of surface infrastructure are not the only ones that would be involved in building and running a “vast underground city.” A truly massive industrial zone would have to be created on the surface to support the workers, trucks and machinery busy at work below. Fueling stations, high voltage transmission lines (with their own distinct hum), chemical storage tanks, water retention ponds and even sewage storage or treatment facilities would create their very own surface city on top of the one underground.
Rachel Garwin holds an M.S. in Natural Resources from the University of Vermont. Every month, Science Desk will include our latest scientific support and share a deeper understanding of the potential environmental impact from sulfide-ore copper mining near the Boundary Waters.
This piece, written by Marshall Helmsberger, originally ran in the June 11, 2015, issue of the Ely Timberjay and is reprinted here with permission.
Just over a century ago, the powerful industrialist Edward Backus proposed a series of massive hydroelectric dams that would have flooded a vast swatch of northeastern Minnesota’s canoe country to power more and larger paper mills at International Falls. At the time, few thought that anything or anyone could stop the wealthy and well-connected Backus
Yet a young man named Ernest Oberholtzer, armed only with a pen and his wits, was able to defeat Backus in a classic David versus Goliath struggle that generated popular support for the protection of the border lakes regtion for its recreational value. Oberholtzer’s unlikely triumph paved the way for creation of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Voyageurs National Park.
Theodore Roosevelt IV, the great grandson of the former U.S. president, said he sees a similar dynamic in the current fight between the wilderness supporters and large, international mining companies that aim to extract copper-nickel along the edge of the BWCAW. Roosevelt was in Minnesota last week to kick off the formation of Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters, an affiliate of the Ely-based Boundary Waters Trust and the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters.
“I’m here because I wanted to add my voice to the chorus,” said Roosevelt, who lives and works in New York City as an investment banker. “I do so with the clear knowledge that if these mines are allowed to proceed, we know with certainty that it would be catastrophic for the Boundary Waters,” he said.
While Roosevelt has never traveled in the Boundary Waters, he said he worked as a canoe guide some summers in Canada, where the terrain is very similar. “It’s part of the same Canadian Shield, where there’s very little soil buffering,” he said. “When I was first asked to come here, it really resonated with me."
President Theodore Roosevelt established the Superior National Forest in 1909, and he was a strong advocate of protecting the nation’s natural resources, including wilderness areas. That’s a tradition that his great-grandson carries on today through his involvement in a number of environmental causes.
During a talk last Thursday in Minneapolis, Roosevelt said he was impressed at the degree of interest in the topic. “I had a wonderful opportunity to talk to mostly hunters and fishermen, legislative assistants, and environmentalists. Many said they were new to the issue, but were interested to learn more and to get involved,” he said.
It’s that kind of outreach, said Roosevelt that allowed Oberholtzer to overcome the money and connections of Edward Backus. “He understood that the recreational value of this area was greater that flooding the region would bring,” said Roosevelt.
“I think you can make the same case with mining.” Roosevelt said many modern mines are now so automated that they employ few workers. “This will create relatively few jobs,” he said, while most tourism jobs, like guiding and outfitting, are labor intensive and difficult to outsource or automate. “I don’t think I want to hire a robot to be my guide out in the Boundary Waters,” he said.
As an investment banker, Roosevelt said he understands the necessity to extractive industries, like mining, and oil and gas. “We’re not saying no more mining or oil drilling, but there is a time and a place and this is not one of them.”
“Obviously we will still continue to do these things, but let’s use our brains and do it in the right places. We don’t want to destroy the country by untrammeled exploitation.