The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) in Minnesota is the nation’s most popular wilderness area. Straddling the border with Canada, this region includes one of the world’s most pristine ecosystems fed by a system of waterways supplied from the land of a thousand lakes. Scientists from around the world visit the Boundary Waters to study the wildlife and forest ecology of one of the most primitive natural environments still in existence.
In addition to the natural beauty and scientific value, this wilderness supports a mature and robust recreation industry. Canoe outfitters, resorts, dogsledders, and other wilderness-based businesses comprise portions of a tourism industry that supports 18,000 jobs in northeastern Minnesota generating over $850 million in sales.
Science Lead Policy-Making
A Chilean mining company, Antofagasta, controls leases that directly abut the wilderness. These leases contain sulfide ore deposits of copper, nickel, and other metals. When air and water become exposed to these sulfide minerals, they react to form sulfuric acid leading to a process known as acid mine drainage. This acid is highly toxic to fish and other aquatic life. According to University of Minnesota professor Lawrence Baker, each one-tenth drop in pH levels will result in fish species loss. It does not take a hydrologist to know that all water is connected. Dr. Tom Myers created a hydrological model illustrating that- especially in this sensitive area- acid pollution anywhere may result in pollution everywhere. Dr. Lee Frelich, a University of Minnesota forest ecologist, studied the forest fragmentation effects on wildlife from mining next to the BWCAW. The result: more moose and lynx will die.
Drs. Myers and Frelich came to Washington, DC last week to meet with members of Minnesota’s Congressional delegation, the US Forest Service, and Bureau of Land Management to discuss the threats posed by turning these precious places in to areas of heavy industrial activity.
This week Joseph Goldstein, a remarkable 13-year-old battling leukemia, will also visit DC to meet with a number of high level government dignitaries. Joseph has spent summers and winters exploring the BWCAW since he was 5. The Make-A-Wish Foundation is working with Joseph to support his wish to save the BWCAW for future generations. Earthworks, Environment America, American Rivers, Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness and other groups helped collect more than 60,000 petition signatures in support of permanently protecting the wilderness from mining. Joseph will deliver those petitions as part of a press conference on Wednesday.
Trading Posterity for Nickel
There are some places too precious for mining. And some places especially poorly suited to accommodate it. The BWCAW is both. Congress created the wilderness system so some areas will remain as nature intended. The unique ecosystem of the BWCAW carries special value for researchers studying the effects of climate change on the species living there. It also has special value for people like Joseph, and the tourists from around the world who make the Boundary Waters the nation’s most popular wilderness destination.