WHAT IS AT RISK
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
THE GREATEST THREAT
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.
In 2000 Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness became concerned about the growing interest by mining companies in sulfide-ore copper mining in northeastern Minnesota. Our members began to intensively study the ecological and environmental impacts of this type of mining in our water-rich environment. This early attention led to the involvement of Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness in a federal environmental impact statement that addressed applications for federal prospecting permits (2008-2012). Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness also worked on the first sulfide-ore copper mine to be proposed in Minnesota, called Northmet or Polymet mine near Aurora – Hoyt Lakes, Minnesota. As this mine project underwent a combined federal – state environmental review from 2005 to 2016, Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness organized and led workshops and open houses to provide information and assist local citizens to prepare for written and oral comments. Car-pools to government-sponsored public meetings in Duluth and Aurora were organized. Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness passed a resolution in opposition to the proposed mine and prepared and submitted detailed comments to the Northmet/ Polymet Supplemental Draft EIS and the Clean Water Act Section 404 permit process.
Additional sulfide-ore copper mines have been proposed for lands in the watershed of the Boundary Waters. Mining in the watershed would threaten the Wilderness and downstream, Canada’s Quetico Provincial Park and Voyageurs National Park. To confront the risk to these three protected landscapes, in 2012 Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness began working on a national response, and in 2013 officially formed the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, now a 400+ national coalition of businesses and conservation and hunting and fishing organizations united to permanently protect the watershed of the Boundary Waters from sulfide-ore copper mining. Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness leads the Campaign, fully funds the efforts to pass legislation at the federal and state levels, and coordinates advocacy before the Minnesota Legislature and Congress, state and federal agencies, and the administrations of Presidents Obama, Trump, and Biden and Governors Dayton and Walz. Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness, together with conservation and business partners, engages in litigation at the federal and state level to ensure permanent protection. In its leadership role, Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness has submitted high quality technical comments for four federal public comment periods and organized more than 250,000 people to participate in public processes and advocate for the permanent protection of the watershed. Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness’ Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters is widely viewed as one of the leading national public lands coalitions in the nation.
Learn More About What's At Risk Below:
THE WILDERNESS LANDSCAPE
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.
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 rule 7050.0180. The rule 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.
Manoomin- Wild Rice
Irreplaceable Natural and Cultural Value
Manoomin, or wild rice (Zizania palustris L.), is a wild, aquatic emergent grass, native to North America. It often grows in extensive beds, providing a significant food source and nesting habitat for many species of water birds, including geese, swans and ducks and mammals such as beaver and muskrats, and is also eaten by deer and moose. Rice worms and other insect larvae also feed on wild rice, and in turn provide a high protein food source for resident and migratory birds.
Wild rice is also of great significance to the physical, spiritual and cultural health of Anishinaabeg (Ojibwe) and other Native people. The traditional hand harvesting, processing, eating, sharing, and gifting of Manoomin, the language associated with these practices, and the ceremonies that celebrate Manoomin, are all vital to the well-being of Native tribal communities across Minnesota and the upper Midwest. Wild rice is also valued by non-Native people, who gather wild rice to supplement their diet and to experience the tradition of hand-harvesting and processing this native wild food. Wild rice (alongside its commercially grown surrogate) is also sold as a culinary delicacy. Although the cultural values of wild rice are beyond economic measure, hand-harvested wild rice is often a vital part of tribal and local economies.
Historically, expansive, natural beds of wild rice grew in the mucky shallows of lakes and rivers in many of the north central states and adjacent provinces. But, as a result of industrial water pollution, harmful agricultural practices, dramatically fluctuating water levels due to dam construction and the increasingly erratic and intense rainfall events driven by climate change, the distribution and abundance of this wild grain has been greatly reduced. Today wild rice occurs in abundance mainly in northern Minnesota, northern Wisconsin and small areas of Michigan. Of major concern is sulfate pollution, which is a mineral salt generated by runoff from industrial water discharge. In the lake bottoms and wetland muck where plant seeds germinate and grow, bacteria can convert sulfate into sulfide, which is toxic to wild rice. In 1973, a Minnesota wild rice sulfate standard was adopted by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the federal Clean Water Act. The standard limits sulfate to 10 milligrams per liter (mgL) in wild rice waters. Levels above that are known to prohibit wild rice growth. Only Minnesota has a wild rice sulfate standard.
Entirely within the 1854 and 1866 Annishinaabeg ceded lands, many of the pristine lakes and rivers of the Boundary Waters and waters within the greater Quetico Superior region are refuges for significant areas of naturally occurring wild rice. Protecting the water quality in the Boundary Waters not only provides wilderness visitors the intimate experience of paddling slowly through vast stretches of wild rice and the opportunity to engage in the art of “ricing”, it also upholds treaty rights and a sacred cultural tradition.
If sulfide-ore copper mining were allowed in the watershed of the Boundary Waters, acid mine drainage (AMD) would release toxic levels of sulfates into the Boundary Waters, Voyageurs National Park and the Canadian waters immediately downstream. Waters across the region in general have background sulfate levels around 6 mg/L, so there is very little capacity of these waters to receive additional sulfate loading from AMD without causing impact on wild rice. Because wild rice is harmed or destroyed by sulfate levels greater than 10 mg/L, sulfide-ore copper mining would likely impair wild rice production. It is also likely to harm other rooted aquatic plants.
Sulfates are also a factor in the creation of methyl mercury, which is the form of mercury taken up in the food chain. Fish in the area already have levels of mercury in their flesh that triggers health advisories (the mercury comes from atmospheric deposition resulting from burning of coal). Increasing the level of sulfate in the water will have the effect of increasing mercury to even more dangerous levels in fish, other animal consumers and humans. Higher levels of sulfates would also result in the release of phosphorus, increasing algal growth, loss of water clarity and eutrophication. Learn more about the impacts of sulfates in this scientific summary.
NMW opposes sulfide-ore copper mining in the watershed of the Boundary Waters, to protect the wilderness and other areas in the Quetico Superior region from harmful sulfate pollution. NMW urges the MPCA to enforce the state’s long-standing wild rice standard for sulfate, and favors expanding the list of water bodies protected by the sulfate limit in order to restore water quality in lakes which previously supported wild rice in Minnesota. NMW agrees with Tribal communities that, in order to protect wild rice, wild rice waters should be surveyed, monitored, restored and protected using a comprehensive strategy by federal, state and tribal agencies.
A Canary in the Coal Mine for Clean Water
A LIVING LABORATORY
Photo Credit: Kellen Witschen
Foundation for Action: Understanding a Changing Boreal Forest Landscape.
Wilderness as a natural, living laboratory is essential to understanding the impacts of anthropogenic activities at local, regional and global scales. Wilderness is an area where zero impacts are expected and thus serves as a baseline to help us understand how landscape patterns among aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems develop in the absence of direct human influence, and how the natural world is changing as a result of climate change. The Boundary Waters offers a unique opportunity to study intact boreal ecosystems and processes that are an integral part of the Quetico-Superior Region; a 4.3 million acre boreal forest landscape that, in addition to the BWCAW, includes the Superior National Forest, Voyageurs National Park, and Quetico Provincial Park in Canada.
Equally significant to the role of the Boundary Waters as a living laboratory, the BWCAW plays a critical role in climate change mitigation, particularly in an ecosystem such as the boreal forest, which is highly sensitive to the effects of climate change. In fact, protecting the Boundary Waters and the Quetico-Superior region as a whole is a significant component of a critical strategy for solving the climate and extinction crisis. The Wilderness Society has designated the Quetico Superior region as one of 74 areas of “Wildland Conservation Value”. Crucial to our ability to sustain biodiversity in the face of a changing climate, these areas have three essential characteristics: (1) an especially high degree of wildness; (2) connectivity to existing protected areas; and (3) diversity of unprotected species and ecosystem types. The analysis found that the Quetico Superior region is one of the top places in the nation with this “Wildland Conservation Value” designation.
NMW supports efforts to understand the boreal forest ecosystems of the Quetico Superior region through research outside the Boundary Waters and carefully reviewed studies, using non-destructive research techniques within the BWCAW. As one of the highest research priorities, NMW promotes scientific studies that reveal the impacts on the BWCAW from existential threats such as sulfide-ore copper mining. Read more about how protecting the BWCAW watershed from sulfide-ore copper mining would provide multiple climate-related benefits.
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.
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.”