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Cook County canoe outfitters suing feds to protect BWCA

Boundary Waters portage up the Gunflint Trail. Photo by Amber Kramer
Boundary Waters portage up the Gunflint Trail. Photo by Amber Kramer

A total of nine local and regional businesses, including several in and with direct ties to Cook County, filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of the Interior challenging the reinstatement of two long-expired mineral leases on land near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
 
The lawsuit challenges that the Department of the Interior’s actions pose an immediate threat to small businesses, public health, jobs, clean water, wildlife, and the sporting and outdoor economy of Minnesota.
 
The lawsuit challenges the Department of the Interior’s decision to abandon longstanding mineral leasing policy - established with bipartisan support—to distort the language of the expired leases. The reinstatement also ignored the U.S. Forest Service’s decision to withhold consent to the reinstated mineral leases because of the likelihood of harm to the water quality of the Boundary Waters.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit include Voyageur Outward Bound School, Piragis Northwoods Company, Ely Outfitting Company, Hungry Jack Outfitters, Sawbill Outfitters, River Point Resort and Outfitting Company, Northstar Canoe, Wenonah Canoe, and Women’s Wilderness Discovery.  A locally based conservation group, Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness, is also a plaintiff.
 
“If sulfide-ore copper mining moves ahead, its pollution would find its way into this fragile, unique watery ecosystem, and the results will be disastrous,” Dave Seaton of Hungry Jack Outfitters.  “Experience with this type of mining elsewhere shows that it causes pollution—catastrophic pollution that is likely to last for centuries, essentially forever. Not only would this have a drastic negative impact on the perception of the entire Wilderness, but would deal a blow to the local economy, causing my business and others to suffer—some may not survive.”
 
In 2016, at the end of a three-year review and a public comment period that included two heavily-attended public meetings, the Forest Service concluded that the development of a copper mine within the Boundary Waters watershed risked serious and irreparable harm to the BWCA.
 
President Donald Trump was in Duluth June 20 and discussed mining opportunities in the region. Without naming specific projects, Trump spoke in favor of proposed mining operations in northeastern Minnesota.
 
Trump discussed mining in the Superior National Forest, but did not mention PolyMet or Twin Metals.
 
“We'll do it carefully and if it doesn't pass muster, maybe we don't do it at all,” he said. “But it's going to happen, I will tell you.”
 
The Forest Service is now conducting a two-year study of its proposal to ban sulfide-ore copper mining  on 234,328 acres of Superior National Forest lands in the watershed of the Boundary Waters for twenty years—lands that include the areas covered by the two reinstated mineral leases. Reinstatement of leases occurred in the middle of the study that will document the negative environmental, economic, and social impacts of copper-nickel mining near the BWCA.
 
“My clients would be repelled by water and noise pollution and other harm to the Boundary Waters,” said Steve Piragis, owner of Piragis Northwoods Company.  “They will stop using substantial areas of the Boundary Waters, including important entry points and major canoe routes. Others will cease to visit at all because it will no longer be the place they love and remember. It would not take long for the recreational economy we have worked so hard to develop for many decades in Ely to be severely affected. My business will suffer.”