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Photo credit: Ryan Tischer

"The BWCAW is wilderness on a human scale; 

you are a part of it every step and stroke of the way."  

-Paul Schurke, Arctic explorer, Co-owner, Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge

Click to Learn More About What's At Risk Below:


Sulfide-ore copper mining

Sulfide-ore copper mining within the pristine watershed of the Boundary Waters represents an imminent threat that would cause wide-spread destruction, according to numerous scientific studies. This type of mining has never before been allowed in Minnesota – and now sulfide-ore copper mines are proposed less than a mile from the wilderness edge and within the headwaters of the Wilderness. Pollution from these mines would flow directly into the heart of the Boundary Waters, Voyageurs National Park and Quetico Provincial Park in Canada – an interconnected lakeland wilderness unlike anywhere else in the world. A single sulfide-ore copper mine in the headwaters of this watershed will continually pollute the Wilderness for at least 500 years, devastating the region’s heritage, landscape, ecosystem, and growing outdoor recreation economy. And it’s more than just one mine. It is the first step toward an industrial corridor of mines, mills, roads, rail lines and toxic tailing piles proposed at the edge of the Boundary Waters, and within communities that depend on the wilderness economically



Protecting the Wilderness Watershed

It is crucial that federal and state agencies that manage the BWCAW and the surrounding area uphold the mandate set forth in the Wilderness Act to protect wilderness character. The law uses five qualities to define wilderness character: (1) Untrammeled, (2) Natural, (3) Undeveloped, (4) Solitude or Primitive and Unconfined Recreation, and (5) Other Features of Value. In 2019, the USDA Forest Service published the Wilderness Character Monitoring Technical Guide, to provide direction for monitoring wilderness character in federal wilderness areas across the country. The Superior National Forest Land and Resource Management Plan provides details on federal management direction for the BWCAW. Visit Proposed Projects on the Superior National Forest for planned management activities with potential to  impact the BWCAW and surrounding watershed.


The legal requirement to protect the Boundary Waters extends to Canada, as well, where thousands more pristine lakes extend for hundreds of miles north of the border. Sulfide-ore copper mining would also devastate Quetico Provincial Park and the surrounding Rainy River Drainage Basin. The 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty commits Canada and the United States to ensuring that neither country will pollute the waters forming or flowing across their common border to the injury of property or health on the other side.It is also imperative to respect and observe Tribal and First Nations rights in the Boundary Waters watershed. Indigenous peoples must always have a seat at the table as decisions are made about the future of the Boundary Waters and its surrounding watershed.

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Photo Credit: Jim Brandenburg

Our Outstanding Resource Value Waters

The Superior National Forest, including the Boundary Waters, contains 20 percent of all the freshwater in the entire U.S. National Forest System. The value of this much high quality water in public ownership is immeasurable, as we struggle to protect clean water resources – an existential issue for humans and wildlife around the globe.


Hundreds of lakes and rivers in the Boundary Waters are officially classified as “Outstanding Resource Value Waters” under Minnesota statute 7050.0180. The statute recognizes that “the maintenance of existing high quality in some waters of outstanding resource value to the state is essential to their function as exceptional recreational, cultural, aesthetic, or scientific resources. To preserve the value of these special waters, state and federal agencies must act to prohibit or stringently control new or expanded discharges from either point or nonpoint sources to outstanding resource value waters.” NMW and its partners monitor water quality continuously and pay close attention to proposed and ongoing  activities that could affect water quality and quantity in the Boundary Waters and surrounding watershed, such as sulfide-ore copper mining,  lakeshore development, road building, and more. Issues of concern include: sulfate levels, mercury levels, aquatic invasive species, impoundment, siltation, and water extraction permitting.

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Photo Credit: Kellen Witschen

Untouched Wilderness

Wilderness as a natural laboratory is essential to understanding the impacts of climate change and other human activities at local, regional and global scales. The BWCAW plays a critical role, particularly in the boreal forest landscape that includes the Superior National Forest, Voyageurs National Park, and Quetico Provincial Park (Ontario) that is highly sensitive to the effects of climate change. The BWCAW offers the unique opportunity to study intact ecosystems and processes within the boreal forest landscape. Wilderness is an area where zero impacts are expected and thus helps us understand how landscape patterns among aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems develop in the absence of direct human manipulation.


NMW supports efforts to understand the changing Wilderness landscape through research outside the Wilderness and carefully reviewed and approved, non-destructive research techniques within the BWCAW.


Learn about Wilderness conservation, climate change  and other research activities in the BWCAW and the surrounding Superior National Forest, through the research publications of Dr. Lee Frelich and others, and via ongoing research at the Hubachek Wilderness Research Center.

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Lands that have been designated as Wilderness by the United States Congress and signed into law by the President deserve and are meant to receive the strongest protections among any of our public lands. Wilderness designation protects landscapes with a mosaic of ecosystems that function with as little influence from human beings as any on earth. Wilderness protects “natural capital” such as clean water, healthy soils, forests and wetlands, and the ecosystem services that sustain all life on earth. Wilderness provides outstanding opportunities for solitude and recreation experiences that offer a sense of total freedom from the stresses of modern life. The designation of Wilderness protects these values for future generations.


The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness contains 1.1 million acres of interconnected lakes and rivers, wetlands and forests, and one of the last remaining intact boreal forest ecosystems in the United States. It is the largest wilderness area in the Federal Wilderness System east of the Rockies. The 3-million acre Superior National Forest that includes the BWCAW contains 20 percent of the freshwater in the entire 193-million acre national forest system. Within the Boundary Waters are 1,200 miles of canoe and kayak routes, 2,000 designated campsites and nearly 250 miles of overnight hiking trails.  


More than 155,000 overnight visitors travel in the BWCAW each year, making it the most popular wilderness area in the United States. But its popularity does not express all that it means to people who have experienced this pristine wild place first-hand. Appreciating the taste of pure, clean water, breathing deep the crisp, fresh air, feeling the stillness of silence and the vastness of dark skies, sensing the solitude of a wild, natural landscape evokes a sense of awe and wonder. To move through the Boundary Waters, by canoe or on foot, cultivates physical and psychological well-being and elicits spiritual, esthetic and intrinsic values among people that shapes their lives like no other place they have known.


Those who value Wilderness also include those who may never visit the Boundary Waters or any other Wilderness Area in their lifetime. We value the knowledge that the Wilderness will continue to exist, undisturbed, for future generations to enjoy and benefit from, as well as the intrinsic value of wilderness beyond any human connection; that is “ wilderness for wilderness's sake.”