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2024 will determine the future of the Boundary Waters

This constantly embattled Wilderness remains threatened. 

This year is shaping up to be critical in the long fight to protect the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness from toxic mining pollution from sulfide-ore copper mines proposed in its headwaters. 


Last year, on January 26th, 2023, the Biden administration issued Public Land Order 7917 [1] (PLO), which banned toxic copper mining on 225,504 acres of Superior National Forest land in the watershed of the BWCA and upstream of the Wilderness for twenty years. This was the most significant conservation measure for protecting the Wilderness canoe country since the 1978 Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act. The PLO, also called a “mineral withdrawal,” came after the Forest Service published a comprehensive scientific review [2] which finds that sulfide-ore copper mining would pollute the Boundary Waters in ways that could not be fixed or mitigated.


But this protection is only temporary, and as the possibility of an anti-Boundary Waters administration looms, so does the possibility of reversal of these protections. 


Right now, some of the biggest threats to the Boundary Waters are in our nation’s capital: 


1. Anti-Boundary Waters House members are pushing to unravel the PLO. 


H. Resolution 987 was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives late last month. The resolution, titled “Denouncing the harmful, anti-American energy policies of the Biden administration, and for other purposes,[3]” condemns the Biden administration’s conservation efforts as an affront to domestic production – and specifically condemns last year's historic PLO. 


Excerpt from the recent resolution: 

“Denouncing the harmful, anti-American energy policies of the Biden administration, and for other purposes.”…“Whereas the Biden administration implemented a 20-year mining moratorium on 225,000 acres of the Superior National Forest in northern Minnesota;”[4]

At the same time, Congressman Pete Stauber is aggressively seeking to force sulfide-ore copper mining just upstream of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. He has two measures in the U.S. House that would nullify the 20-year ban and reinstate canceled mining leases:

  • Rep. Stauber introduced House Concurrent Resolution 34. This resolution would undo the Boundary Waters Mineral Withdrawal under the Federal Land Policy Management Act or FLPMA. This provision is widely considered unconstitutional, as it allows Congress to bypass the president and veto mineral withdrawals on public land. 

  • In addition to this unconstitutional resolution, Rep. Stauber introduced H.R. 3195, or the “Superior National Forest Restoration Act.” Aside from being a misleading name, this legislation would not only reverse Secretary Haaland’s mineral withdrawal but would also force the government to reissue canceled federal mining leases to companies like Twin Metals; renew mining prospecting permits and additional leases, and approve mine plans on an expedited timeline; and prohibit judicial review of those actions. 

Not surprisingly, the National Parks Action Fund recently analyzed voting records for members of the 118th Congress on conservation, park funding, historic preservation, and wildlife protection and rated Rep. Stauber an “F.”[5]


2. Since Biden was inaugurated, Chilean mining conglomerate Antofagasta has been ratcheting up lobbying spending for its Twin Metals project.


A comparison between the Trump administration and the Biden administration eras shows that Antofagasta spent nearly twice as much on federal lobbying for the Twin Metals project during the Biden Administration versus during the Trump Administration, shelling out roughly $1.3 million under former President Trump and $2.5 million over the course of the past four years.  In 2022 alone the company spent $1,010,000 in an effort to block the mineral withdrawal.[6] Last year, Antofagasta dedicated less money, but not by much, and spent over three-quarters of a million dollars, $770,000, to lobby the United States Congress. 


President Trump’s Interior Secretary David Bernhardt is a partner in Antofagasta’s top lobby firm. Former Secretary Bernhardt oversaw the unlawful issuance of two federal mineral leases in the watershed of the Boundary Waters in May of 2019. These leases were issued for the benefit of Twin Metals to advance a highly risky mine project on the edge of the Boundary Waters. [7] 


To compound matters, Antofagasta is financially supporting members of Congress who oppose protecting the Boundary Waters. In 2023, Antofagasta’s Twin Metals Minnesota continued to use Bernhardt’s lobbying firm, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. Lobbying disclosure filings show Twin Metals hired Bernhardt's firm shortly after Bernhardt left the Trump administration. Twin Metals Minnesota lobbying firm Brownstein, Hyatt et. al donated to Rep. Westerman, Rep. McConnell, and Rep. Stauber in 2023: 


  • Rep. Westerman, House Natural Resource Committee chair, at least $9,750.[8] 

  • At least $37,000 to Sen. Mitch McConnell.  [9]

  • At least $4,000 to Rep. Stauber, member of the House Natural Resource Committee and Chair of the Energy and Minerals Subcommittee.[10]


Finally, this past fall, Antofagasta claimed a foothold in the Boundary Waters headwaters by prying open the door to exploratory drilling on vulnerable state and private lands adjacent to Birch Lake and upstream of the Boundary Waters. This move is a brazen attempt to short circuit an important trial set for November wherein Northeastern Minnesotans for the Wilderness (the lead organization in the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters) will demonstrate the failure of Minnesota’s regulatory agencies to protect the Boundary Waters. This also undercuts the Biden administration’s 20-year protection for the federal lands in the watershed. Franconia Minerals, a subsidiary of Twin Metals Minnesota, plans to drill just upstream of the Boundary Waters; its request to drill was approved by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) on October 30, 2023. Franconia Minerals is undertaking this exploratory drilling to advance a mine under Birch Lake, a lake which flows directly into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

2024 will be a key deciding year for the future of the  Boundary Waters, with the Boundary Waters on the ballot. 

President Biden is a Boundary Waters champion with a proven track record. During his time in office, the Biden administration took bold action to protect unique and irreplaceable public lands, including the Boundary Waters, Voyageurs National Park, Canada’s Quetico Park, and the entirety of the watershed. This was a conservation win as well as an economic win for the Boundary Waters and wilderness edge communities. Seventy percent of Minnesotans support a permanent ban on sulfide-ore copper mining in the Boundary Waters headwaters.[11]

Protecting the Boundary Waters is crucial, as it is an environmental treasure and an economic driver for the region.

  • A vast collection of peer-reviewed science shows that if a Twin Metals copper-nickel mine were built along the rivers and streams flowing into the Wilderness, pollution and environmental degradation would be inevitable.[12]

  • The Biden administration's comprehensive approach to economic development in Northern Minnesota works. The Boundary Waters is an economic engine for hundreds of businesses and thousands of people. However, an industrial mining district in the Boundary Waters watershed would forever degrade the landscape, undercut the wilderness character of the Boundary Waters, and continuously produce pollution for hundreds of years that would flow directly into the Wilderness.

  • The Boundary Waters is the most heavily visited national wilderness area in the United States, attracting more than 165,000 visitors from all over the world. It helps drive more than $900 million [13] in annual economic activity and helps support over 17,000 jobs. A peer-reviewed independent study from Harvard University [14] shows that protecting the Boundary Waters from a proposed Twin Metals sulfide-ore copper mine would result in dramatically more jobs and more income over a 20-year period. The study, written by Harvard University’s Professor James Stock, found that:

"[T]he proposed mining would lead to a boom-bust cycle that is typical of resource extraction economies, exacerbated by the likely negative effect on the recreation industry" and that “over the 20-year time horizon of the proposed withdrawal, introducing copper-nickel mining in the Superior National Forest is likely to have a negative effect on the regional economy."


Studies show that sulfide-ore copper mining is a job killer, and threats to the amenity-based economy could cost up to 22,000 local jobs and between $402 million and $1.6 billion in total annual income.


Efforts to preserve the Boundary Waters are essential to maintain its wilderness character, support local economies, and prevent environmental degradation. The upcoming year will be crucial in determining the future of the Boundary Waters. The administration's commitment to conservation, as well as public support, is an essential factor in safeguarding this cherished wilderness area from irreversible damage caused by mining pollution forever.

1. U.S. Department of the Interior. (2024, February 7). Biden-Harris administration protects boundary waters area watershed. U.S. Department of The Interior.
2. Federal review says copper-nickel mining poses an environmental risk to BWCA. (2022, June 23).
3. Denouncing the harmful, anti-American energy policies of the Biden administration, and for other purposes, H.Res.987, 118th Congress. (2023)

4. Denouncing the harmful, anti-American energy policies of the Biden administration, and for other purposes, H.Res.987, 118th Congress. (2023)

5. 2024 Congressional Scorecard - National Parks Action Fund. (2024, February 26). National Parks Action Fund.

6. In Q4, Antofagasta’s Lobbying Efforts Hit

7. Twin Metals hires former Interior Secretary Bernhardt’s firm to lobby on risky mining near Boundary Waters. (2021, September 15). [Press release].

8. OpenSecrets. Bruce Westerman: top 100 contributors to Campaign

9. OpenSecrets. Mitch McConnell: Top 20 contributors to Campaign

10. OpenSecrets. Rep. Pete Stauber - Minnesota District 08.

11. Archer, P. & Change Research. (2022). The Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters 2022 Post-Election poll.

12. THE SCIENCE: Proposed Sulfide-Ore Copper Mining Threatens Aquatic and Terrestrial Ecosystems of the Boundary Waters Region of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, the Superior National Forest, Voyageurs National Park, and Canada’s Quetico Provincial Park, and public health and the regional economy of northeastern Minnesota. (2015). In Technical Memorandum: Potential Metals Mining and the Voyageurs National Park Risk Assessment for Upstream Metals Mining.

13. Minnesota Tourism: Proudly Feeding Minnesota’s Economy Year Round. (2019).

14. Stock JH, Bradt JT. Analysis of Proposed 20-year Mineral Leasing Withdrawal in Superior National Forest. Ecological Economics. 2020;174 :1-9.

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