Minnesota Boundary Waters| Peter de Sibour, courtesy of Explore Minnesota
The U.S. Interior Department will not allow mining in two areas near the Boundary Waters Wilderness Area in northern Minnesota, the department said Wednesday.
The decision is a reversal of a Trump-era legal opinion, giving conservation advocates hope that nearly a quarter-million acres bordering the wilderness area that include the mining areas may also be protected from development.
Twin Metals Minnesota, the company that held the mining leases, vowed to fight the decision.
Congressional Republicans, including the area’s U.S. House member, Pete Stauber, blasted it as damaging the local economy.
Democrats and environmental groups praised the move as protecting an important recreational and wilderness space.
Ann Marie Bledsoe Downes, the top deputy solicitor at Interior, wrote in a Tuesday legal memorandum to Secretary Deb Haaland that the leases granted to Twin Metals to mine for copper, nickel, cobalt and other minerals in the Superior National Forest were improperly reinstated in 2019. The U.S. Forest Service never signed off on the lease renewal, Bledsoe Downes wrote.
“We must be consistent in how we apply lease terms to ensure that no lessee receives special treatment,” Haaland said in a Wednesday news release. “After a careful legal review, we found the leases were improperly renewed in violation of applicable statutes and regulations, and we are taking action to cancel them.”
In a news release, Twin Metals painted the decision as a politically — rather than legally — motivated move that was “disappointing, but not surprising.” The release said the company expected to win an effort to once again reverse the decision.
“We will challenge this attempt to stop our project and defend our valid existing mineral rights,” the company release said. “This is not about law; this is a political action intended to stop the Twin Metals project without conducting the environmental review prescribed in law.”
Rule proposed for new leases
President Joe Biden’s administration is also considering a rule that would ban new mineral leases in 225,000 acres of Superior National Forest for 20 years, including the areas covered by the leases. The public comment on that proposal closed last week.
Wednesday’s announcement on the leases decision encouraged environmental groups that have advocated for a more permanent ban on mining in the area.
“This hopefully is a preview of the kind of protection that we can expect for the Boundary Waters moving forward,” said Ellen Montgomery, the public lands director for the advocacy group Environment America.
Interior originally granted the mining leases in 1966, and had twice renewed the leases. Twin Metals and earlier lease holders hadn’t produced any minerals on the leases when the second renewal expired in 2016.
Under President Barack Obama, the Interior Department declined to renew the leases a third time after the Forest Service objected to the company’s application.
The proposed Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service rule would establish more lasting protection than the solicitor opinion.
“If they establish this 20-year protection with an outpouring of support from the American public, future administrations would have to think twice before undoing that,” Montgomery said.
Stauber blasts administration
Stauber, whose district in Minnesota’s Iron Range includes all of Superior National Forest and the Boundary Waters, blasted the decision in a Wednesday statement, saying it would shut out domestic mineral producers in favor of foreign sources with worse environmental and labor standards.
“The Biden Administration doesn’t have a plan for mineral independence,” he said. “Instead, this Administration has decided to leave American, blue-collar workers behind and bow to pressure from radicals who prefer to rely on foreign adversarial nations for these minerals.”
Stauber, the leading Republican on the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, is a frequent critic of Biden administration policy.
U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, a Democrat from Saint Paul who is a member of the House Natural Resources Committee and a former chairwoman of the Interior-Environment spending panel, praised the decision in a statement.
“The Boundary Waters is a national treasure that belongs to all Americans, and I am absolutely committed to ensuring its watershed will be permanently protected,” she said. “Some places are simply too special to mine, and it is our obligation to ensure these unique and valuable lands and waters remain intact for generations to come.”
Speaking to reporters in a video call, McCollum said she was celebrating Wednesday, but would soon return to pushing for permanent protections.
The House Natural Resources Committee approved a McCollum bill in 2020 that would have permanently protected the area, but the measure never received a floor vote.
That committee’s chair, Arizona Democrat Raúl Grijalva, also applauded the decision.
“Putting this type of mining right next to the Boundary Waters would have been an environmental disaster,” he said. “I will continue working with my colleagues to make sure the Boundary Waters is permanently protected so that future generations of Americans can similarly enjoy this pristine area.”
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