The Obama Administration today announced it would not renew federal mineral leases critical to the development of a copper-nickel mine on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and upstream of Voyageurs National Park.
The federal government also plans to conduct an in-depth review of whether or not any mining would be appropriate in areas where water flows toward the wilderness.
“The Boundary Waters is a natural treasure, special to the 150,000 who canoe, fish, and recreate there each year, and is the economic life blood to local business that depend on a pristine natural resource,” said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. “I have asked Interior to take a time out, conduct a careful environmental analysis and engage the public on whether future mining should be authorized on any federal land next door to the Boundary Waters.”
The move comes after a public comment period last July that sought input on whether or not the Forest Service should consent to renewing the leases, which were first issued in the 1960s and eventually inherited by the Chilean mining conglomerate Anfofagasta PLC. The Forest Service told the Bureau of Land Management, which is in charge of such leases, that it did not consent, and the BLM revoked the leases. The Forest Service is also seeking to withdraw the wilderness watershed from new leases.
The lands in question will be protected for the next two years while a “thorough, scientific environmental analysis is conducted.” The public, government agencies, tribes, and industry will be invited to participate throughout the review. The BLM and Forest Service plan to study whether or not the lands should be withdrawn from mining for 20 years – the maximum time period allowable without Congressional action.
“Science has clearly shown that sulfide-ore copper mining would inflict devastating harm on this priceless wilderness,” Save the Boundary Waters campaign chair Becky Rom said in a statement. “Today’s decision reflects strong support from a majority of Minnesotans who want to prioritize the wide-ranging value our communities gain from a healthy Boundary Waters, rather than open an industrial mining zone less than a mile from the wilderness edge.”
Twin Metals has already sued the federal government to stop the review, and can be expected to file additional legal challenges now that it has been denied renewal. It is also possible that future administrations could attempt to overturn the move.
UPDATE 1:15 P.M.
Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton released a statement praising the decision and calling the Boundary Waters a “crown jewel,” and reiterating support for economic development in northeastern Minnesota:
“It is important to note that this decision is not in opposition to mining, but in defense of a pristine and priceless environmental wonder,” Dayton said. “We must continue doing all we can to support good jobs and a strong economy in Northeastern Minnesota, while ensuring the protection of our greatest natural resources.”