For many Minnesotans, the acronym BWCA brings back memories of time spent reconnecting with nature in one of the United States’ most beautiful places. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area is a wilderness area with restricted mining, logging, and motorized access and managed by the Superior National Forest, created in 1978. Avid campers, hikers, and adventurers from around the nation come to the BWCA for what they would consider “real” camping: the area forbids almost all motorized transportation and there is no such thing as plumbing. The area is beautiful, remote, and almost completely unscathed by markers that would indicate a human presence, which is why it is such a treasure to those who have visited. Depending on where a trip route leads, one can go days without seeing another human being. However, this paradise of mosquito bites and personal discovery is located in an area of Minnesota that is less idyllic: The Iron Range.
The Iron Range has long been known to be rich in natural resources, supplying much of the nation’s steel mills with iron ore, and creating a booming economy that lasted from the late 1800s until the 1960s, when easily obtainable iron ore began to run out. Examples of this boom/bust economy are evident in the towns located in the “Arrowhead” of Minnesota experiencing low enrollment, low graduation rates, and lack of government funding. Recently, there has been a push by Twin Metals to implement a massive underground copper and nickel mine southeast of Ely, MN, one of the most popular “put in” points along the BWCA. The mine would bring jobs to a struggling economy in a region where the Great Recession was no surprise and tourism as the main economy is no longer able to support the community. Signs displaying the slogan “We Support Mining, Mining Supports Us” can be seen in the yards of residents of these small Iron Range towns that desperately need economic growth and historically have seen that growth from taconite, copper, and nickel mining.
Unfortunately, mining has had a history of being incredibly environmentally destructive. Worries about the preservation of the water quality of the Boundary Waters has some people concerned about the opening of another mine so close to the protected area: in this instance, there is a possibility that the copper bearing sulfide ore, once exposed to the air, will become acidic and pollute local water resources, including those in the Boundary Waters.
This has pitted the residents of the Iron Range against those who love to enjoy it once or twice a year. Visitors see the proposal as a threat to a rare, beautiful part of the world that has so far remained unsullied by human hands, and must remain that way. Residents see an opportunity to save their communities, and are irritated by the notion that people from the Twin Cities Metro Area (derisively known as “612ers”), think they are better equipped to make decisions regarding the future of the Range. Herein lies the issue: Iron Rangers should be allowed to determine whether or not to boost their struggling economies with the promise of mining jobs, but Metro-based environmental groups are completely justified in their concerns.
If non-residents of the Iron Range are going to stop mining projects from proceeding, there needs to be another economic option. While mining may be a rather short-term fix for the area, simply shutting down the project will leave Ely and other towns in the Iron Range in even more dire straits. While improper mining may not be a sustainable environmental endeavor, leaving the communities and families that exist in the area with nothing is even less sustainable. If mining is to continue, it will take a combination of new technology and public diligence to make sure mining companies are not taking shortcuts at the cost of the environment. If mining is absolutely not an option, residents of Minnesota must work to find alternate ways to support the local communities of the Iron Range besides a yearly canoe trip.