The re-authorization of a mining lease could affect the popularity of Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Photo by Cameron Wittig/Flickr. Used under the CC BY-ND 2.0 license.

Portions of Minnesota’s rural “Arrowhead,” with its vast freshwater lakes and forests, have experienced years of growth and development as a center of outdoor recreation. That trend could change as the Department of Interior re-authorizes a controversial copper and nickel mining lease beside the region’s key attraction and nation’s most visited wilderness area, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

“The Boundary Waters is one of those special places where families can easily access the outdoors for a true wilderness experience,” said Erik Jensen, a Minnesotan and member of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. “Tens of thousands of us get out there every year. I’m taking my 13-year-old daughter there this spring to fish walleyes and see pictographs painted by Ojibwe hunters long ago. She’s so eager to go she’s helping pay for it with babysitting money.”

Jensen said these visitors bring millions of dollars with them to the area, particularly in Ely. “There’s a very robust economy in the area. There’s outfitters and guides, there’s the lodges and cabins. The economics have shifted away from the boom and bust era of mining in the past,” Jensen said.

Others feel like the region could benefit from expanded mining activity. Minnesota Speaker of the House Kurt Daudt (R-31A) announced the renewed lease, stating “It’s refreshing to have an administration that understands the importance of mining to Minnesota – and the entire United States. I hope this is just the start of federal efforts to remove unnecessary obstacles to job creation and economic development so we can grow jobs and paychecks in Minnesota and across the country.”

The potential mining project is within the Rainy River watershed, where the majority of land and impacted waters are owned by the state and federal governments. The watershed drains into both the Boundary Waters and nearby Voyageurs National Park in Canada. Twin Metals, a subsidiary of the Chilean mining giant Antofagasta, is proposing a massive $2.8 billion underground mine and other facilities and hundreds of jobs. The company says it has already invested $400 million in exploration and pre-feasibility planning.

Ely-based Save the Boundary Waters, the nonprofit that led the successful campaign to halt mine exploration a year ago, said they would challenge the decision in court. “The Interior Department’s decision is a big fat Christmas gift for a giant foreign mining corporation willing to do anything to exploit the watershed of Minnesota’s crown jewel wilderness. It runs contrary to fact, contrary to the law, and contrary to the views of Minnesota voters who love the Boundary Waters and rely on it for thousands of jobs, world-class hunting and fishing, and some of the cleanest water on Earth,” the organization stated

According to their economic analysis, potential mine waste would threaten the “economic lifeblood of northeastern Minnesota’s lucrative tourism industry. Tourism generates $913 million in revenue per year in economic benefits and creates 17,000 jobs that support local families and businesses.”

Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton has taken action to deny Twin Metals access to state-owned land for its operations. “This shameful reversal by the Trump Administration shows that big corporate money and special interest influence now rule again in Republican-controlled Washington. We will have to uncover why the financial interests of a large Chilean corporation, with a terrible environmental record, has trumped the need to protect Minnesota’s priceless Boundary Waters Canoe Area,” Dayton said in a statement.

Others are criticizing the Trump Administration’s decision for potential linkages between Antofagasta’s billionaire owner Andronico Luksic and the Trump family. The Washington Post recently reported that Luksic rents a home to Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner in Washington, D.C., who are both serving as advisors to the President.

The Twin Metals mine controversy is the latest in a string of decisions where the Trump administration has reversed Obama era executive actions on public lands. Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke has previously taken action to reduce the size of several National Monuments, and the department has aggressively expanded mineral and oil leases offerings throughout the Western states.

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