Saving the Boundary Waters: An Update

The Boundary Waters in Minnesota continue to face the threat of sulfide-ore copper mining, which caused the area to be listed as one of America’s Most Endangered Rivers® of 2013. The Save the Boundary Waters campaign has been busy the past few years on building support for permanent protection for this wild place.

Joe Brandmeier

Today’s guest blog is by Rachel Garwin, policy director for Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness.

Joe Brandmeier
Canoe flotilla launches Sustainable Ely, an education and action center located in downtown Ely, Minnesota, with help from the American Rivers Endangered Rivers designation

When I dipped my paddle into the South Kawishiwi River on a drizzly day in June 2013, I didn’t know that I was helping launch a movement. American Rivers had listed the South Kawishiwi River and the connected Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness on the list of America’s Most Endangered Rivers® earlier that year, and we unfurled the Most Endangered River banner in front of a flotilla of canoes in order to launch a public action and education center located in Ely, Minnesota, one of the Wilderness’s gateway towns. Nearly 60 people braved the rain and cold to paddle a couple of miles down the river as a testament to value of the river and the wilderness that is both its source and sink.

The Boundary Waters is still threatened by proposed sulfide-ore copper mines, just like it was in 2013 when American Rivers first raised national awareness of the issue, but we’ve come a long way in defending it. The Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters grew out of the same local efforts behind Sustainable Ely, the action center that was launched on June 1, 2013. Since then, the Campaign has continued connecting with Minnesotans and people across the country to educate them about the risks posed by sulfide-ore copper mining and the extreme vulnerability of the Boundary Waters.

Minnesota has never before allowed this type of mining, which is listed on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory as the nation’s most toxic industry. Contamination from the proposed mine sites could indefinitely harm fish and their prey, and the surface infrastructure would unacceptably impact the wilderness character of the nearby Boundary Waters.

Rachel Garwin
A loon swims among the spring ice on the South Kawishiwi River. Loons and other fish-eating birds would be exposed to much greater levels of heavy metals, including mercury, from sulfide-ore copper mining pollution

The Campaign’s efforts to mobilize a national movement to protect the Boundary Waters have included three “adventure advocacy” expeditions planned and executed by outfitters and guides whose lives and livelihoods depend on the pristine and unspoiled qualities of the Boundary Waters.

From August to December 2014, Dave and Amy Freeman paddled and sailed more than 2,000 miles from Ely, MN, to Washington, DC, to call attention to the threats posed to the Boundary Waters from sulfide-ore copper mining and collected petition signatures on their canoe. They were greeted in DC by more than 40 Minnesotans who then met with members of Congress, their staffs, and land management agency officials to explain why the clean water and healthy forests of the Boundary Waters are too important to risk to sulfide-ore copper mining.

Then from April to May 2015, three instructors at the Voyageur Outward Bound School pedaled 850 miles from Winona, MN, to Ely, MN— visiting college campuses along the way and engaging with Minnesotans across the state about the mining threat. They collected more than 6,000 petition signatures during the journey.

Most recently, Dave and Amy Freeman launched a year-long expedition into the Boundary Waters to bear witness to the place that would be so impacted by sulfide-ore copper mining, and in Amy’s words, to “speak loudly for a quiet place.”

Tens of thousands of people have taken action as a result of these expeditions and the Campaign’s work including: generating media coverage; working in coalition with business, youth, faith, veteran and sportsmen allies; hosting grassroots house parties; speaking at clubs and service organizations; and otherwise connecting with neighbors and friends about the threats faced by the Boundary Waters. In March 2015, the Campaign and its partners (including American Rivers) delivered more than 60,000 petitions to members of Congress and federal agencies asking for permanent protection for the Boundary Waters. The petitions and public outcry convinced Representative Betty McCollum to introduce legislation in the House of Representatives that would permanently protect the Boundary Waters watershed from sulfide-ore copper mining, while maintaining all other types of uses currently allowed by the Superior National Forest. As the ranking Democratic member of the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, Representative McCollum’s willingness to defend the Boundary Waters proves the importance of these wilderness waters for the whole country.

By building this local and national movement, we are showing federal agencies and Minnesota’s Congressional delegation that the Boundary Waters is a precious national treasure. As such, the agencies must take a good, hard look now at whether sulfide-ore copper mining is an appropriate activity next to the nation’s most popular wilderness area. Under existing federal law, that hard look must include a full environmental review of one company’s application to renew its federal mineral leases, the environmental impacts of which have never been studied. Additionally, it is within the Bureau of Land Management’s and U.S. Forest Service’s missions as land managers to weigh the environmental impact of turning the Superior National Forest near the Boundary Waters into an industrial mining zone before proceeding in a piecemeal fashion.

Rachel Garwin
The author paddles the South Kawishiwi River in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness before the ice completely melts in May 2013

We are grateful for the support of American Rivers in giving this Campaign its national start, and we continue to educate and mobilize people to take action to protect these beloved waters from the dire threat of sulfide-ore copper mining.

We take heart from the fact that so many people have joined the cause, but we know that more will be needed to protect the Boundary Waters. Until the federal land management agencies and our elected officials take concrete action to permanently protect the Boundary Waters watershed, we cannot and will not rest. Please join us by signing the petition to federal decision-makers asking them to protect this special place!


Rachel Garwin, policy director for Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness, which leads the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters. At the time of the South Kawishiwi River’s inclusion as one of America’s Most Endangered Rivers® of 2013, Rachel worked as a wilderness instructor and lived on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

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