Even if you're not a born-and-bred Minnesotan, chances are you've heard of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA), a 1.1 million-acre expanse of protected wilderness located within the Superior National Forest in northeast Minnesota.
It's a haven for nature lovers and outdoor recreation enthusiasts to enjoy camping, hiking, fishing, backpacking, dog sledding, boating and of course, canoeing - not to mention simply basking in its beauty.
But almost since the area was first designated as a protected wilderness in the early 1900s (the boundaries of the BWCA Wilderness have been expanded from 500,000 to over 1 million acres over the years as well), it has been under threat from logging, mining and other interests seeking to exploit its natural resources.
Efforts to preserve the BWCA Wilderness and its surrounding wilderness areas, like Quetico National Forest and Canada's Voyageurs National Park (which lies just across the Canadian border), have reached a peak in recent years, as "these three very important protected areas are in the immediate path of pollution from mining for copper and other metals contained in sulfide ore (deposits found) in the watershed we're trying to protect," says Rebecca Rom, the national campaign chair for "Save the Boundary Waters."
The Ely, Minn., native will be the featured guest speaker at this Thursday's meeting of the Becker County Coalition of Lake Associations, which gets underway at 5:30 p.m. inside the Detroit Lakes Holiday Inn (1155 Hwy. 10 East).
She will be talking about the campaign's fight to keep copper mining interests like Santiago, Chile-based Antofagasta from gaining a foothold in the region, and how local residents can get involved.
"U.S. Rep Rick Nolan and other politicians from the Iron Range have been working intensely to overturn the protections (for the BWCA watershed) put in place this past December by the Department of Interior and U.S. Department of Agriculture," Rom said in a recent telephone interview.
To combat these efforts, the Save the Boundary Waters advocates have been working for the past several years to obtain "science-based" data on the impact of copper mining on the surrounding environment, she added.
"What we did in this area, starting in 2012 and 2013, was to develop a science-based body of work about this unique ecosystem of lakes, rivers, wetlands and groundwater, and the science of mining sulfide-bearing ore deposits such as we have in Minnesota," Rom said. "Based on that science we determined our public lands were at high risk of harm... so we started a movement that has become a national campaign, which seeks to protect the Boundary Waters, Quetico and Voyageurs."
So far, despite the changes in the political landscape that have taken place in the White House and on Capitol Hill since Donald Trump became President of the United States, the campaign seems to be meeting with quite a bit of success thus far, Rom said. "The first indications of where the Trump Administration might be on this issue have been good," she added, noting that a December 2016 decision by the Obama Administration not to renew mineral leases owned by Antofagasta's Minnesota subsidiary, Twin Metals, which would have allowed a copper mine to open up right on the BWCA's doorstep, has thus far been upheld.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Forest Service also embarked on an environmental review process that could lead to a 20-year ban on new copper-nickel mines in the watershed of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.
"On May 25, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue testified in a hearing in the U.S. House and said that they were going to continue the study... that they wanted to know the facts, the science, and would hold making decision (on allowing mineral development within the BWCA watershed) until the study was done," said Rom.
Despite these encouraging signs, Rom added, she knows the fight is not over - and they're going to need all the help they can get.
To learn more, please come to the Becker County COLA meeting on Thursday. The meeting is open to the public; Rom is scheduled to speak at approximately 6:20 p.m.