Contemplating the Value of the St. Louis River

An economic valuation of the goods and services provided by the St. Louis River watershed has been completed. In making a permit decision, Minnesota’s Governor Dayton must consider these tangible values in addition to the less tangible reasons that this river system must be protected from mining for future generations.

Lori Andresen

This guest blog is a part of the America’s Most Endangered Rivers® series highlighting the St. Louis River in Minnesota. Our guest blogger is Kristin Larsen, the Executive Director of Friends of the Cloquet Valley State Forest. Kristin has lived in northern Minnesota all her life.

Minnesota’s Governor Mark Dayton has stated that the decision on whether or not to allow the Polymet sulfide-ore copper mine on the St Louis River will be the most momentous of his term as governor.

Today, I am asking that you join me in reaching out to him to reject this mine that threatens the St. Louis River. Governor Dayton is fluent in both the language of the heart and the balance sheet. He must hear from us about the value of the St. Louis River and its watershed and understand that stopping Polymet and other sulfide mining in Minnesota’s watery north is of critical importance to all creatures on this earth and in particular those in Minnesota’s northeast.

The value of the St. Louis River watershed seems incalculable to me— an immense and powerful river, tea-stained with natural tannins, lush wetlands, silvery fish, buzzing bees, and lands where ancient trees lay cool in the earth. The river flows from a shallow wild rice lake near our home, past abandoned and struggling modern mining towns, through a tribal community with roots in the region thousands of years old. The St. Louis River pours into a rare freshwater estuary, then into Great Lake Superior; all along the way it gathers water from an area of about 2.4 million acres in northern Minnesota. Its benefits to all living things seem countless.

From the headwaters to the estuary, we can see historical and modern evidence of strong desire to protect our valuable river. A century ago, the United States purchased the forested lands in the headwaters region of the St. Louis River to protect the watershed. The deed to the land, purchased under the Weeks Act, prohibits open-pit mining and demonstrates the value of the headwaters of this river. In recent decades, $750,000,000 has been spent to clean up industrial pollution created in the estuary over the last century. Yet right now, the St. Louis River headwaters are threatened by sulfide-ore copper mining that will pollute this special place which we have sought to protect and heal.

Development of the proposed PolyMet mine is contingent upon eliminating the protections of the Weeks Act. As a result, a “land swap” or exchange has been devised that circumvents laws protecting the headwaters of the St. Louis River from the enormous proposed strip mine. The exchange will sacrifice nearly 1000 acres of wetland directly, with indirect impacts extending much farther. It is as if the value of the headwaters, along with the effort and money spent to restore the health of the river, has been forgotten in the rush to extract minerals from the earth in this watery place, for the benefit of a few.

Ivy Vaino
Wild rice

A recent study by Earth Economics details the economic benefits of ecosystem goods and services provided by the St. Louis River watershed.

In the study, only those factors with rigorous scientific valuation were included in the tally; those lacking careful study were omitted. Therefore, the present valuation must be considered a very conservative estimate of the economic value of the benefits provided by the St. Louis River and its watershed.

In total, the river’s ecosystem goods and services are valued at $5 to $14 billion annually.

One of many factors considered in this evaluation, carbon sequestration, is of enormous concern to human kind, and much of the St. Louis headwaters area is a large and complex peatland. The study values the carbon sequestration capacity of this area between $57 billion and $95 billion over the course of the next seven generations. Recreation and tourism alone generate $12,843 per acre per year in this watershed.

According to a recent directive from the White House Office of Management and Budget, the hundreds of values that have been identified in Earth Economics’ report must be included in any analysis of benefit and cost related to the proposed PolyMet project.

Over time, I have realized that “incalculable” is simply not a helpful term to illustrate the value of this watershed when speaking to decision-makers, regardless of whether you are talking to County Board members, state officials, or when addressing U.S. government agencies where financial statements, taxes, royalties and election results are the language spoken. We have the right to expect our government to consider the costs of their decisions, not just the benefits that are touted by corporations.

When we each write to Governor Dayton asking him to protect the St. Louis River and we remind him of the river’s value and the costs of harm to our water supply (including cleanup, which often falls to taxpayers), we may help him understand and give him the courage to SAY NO TO POLYMET.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.