Threats to Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

Photo and Article Contributed by Tim Kelly of APA Education Committee

Designated as a Wilderness in 1978, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) is a massive 1.1 million acre roadless area in Northern Minnesota along the U.S.-Canada border. Surrounded by boreal forest, the landscape is comprised of Canadian shield geology dotted with over 3,000 pristine lakes left during the last glacial retreat 17,000 years ago. Today, the Boundary Waters is primarily a recreation-based destination for paddlers, backpackers, anglers, nordic skiers, mushers, and photographers and is one of the most visited wilderness areas in the country. With over 2,000 backcountry campsites and thousands of miles of paddling routes connected by portage trails, this area has long been a popular destination for canoeists and is gaining interest from packrafters. In addition to its recreational value, the area is also important habitat for moose, lynx, bear, beaver, loon, eagle and the largest population of wolves in the contiguous United States. Prior to its wilderness designation, much of the Boundary Waters was insulated from logging, and it is still home to old growth timber stands of pine, fir, spruce, and cedar. 

While recreation drives much of the local economy, Northern Minnesota is also home to vast mineral deposits that have made the region the largest exporter of iron ore in the United States. While mining production has halved since its peak in the mid-50s, the list of proposed mining projects has grown with two high profile copper-sulfide mine proposals encroaching on the BWCAW. The first threat comes from the Polymet Mine which received a permit in late 2018. After extensive research revealed the mine’s significant environmental impact, its permits were revoked in January 2020. While the defeat of the Polymet Mine was a major victory, the project’s exploitation of loopholes laid the groundwork for other proposals, including the greatest current threat to the BWCAW: the Twin Metals Mine. This proposal is situated only 2-3 miles from the Wilderness boundary and is within the BWCAW watershed. While the mining company says it can mitigate its impact on the surrounding watershed, sulfide mines are notorious for polluting the groundwater. This would not only threaten local water quality and wildlife, but the eventual bioaccumulation of sulfates in local agricultural crops and fisheries could harm human populations as well. In the fall of 2018, the Trump Administration canceled the assessment phase on a 20-year moratorium on mining near the Boundary Waters. Just last month, two expired mining permits were deemed valid after a lost court challenge that they were illegally renewed; a case that has now been appealed to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. 

The Boundary Waters are clearly threatened, but fortunately there are many organizations working to protect one of the most at risk Wilderness areas in the U.S. To learn more check out Friends of the Boundary Waters, Wilderness Watch, and the Sierra Club for the latest information.   

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American Packrafting Association

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