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Battle escalates over mining moratorium near Boundary Waters

U.S. Reps. Tom Emmer and Rick Nolan of Minnesota were joined at a Mountain Iron press conference Monday by Arkansas Rep. Bruce Westerman and Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar. Sportsmen's groups are battling back against Nolan's effort to seek Republican help in Congress to overturn a federal mining moratorium near the BWCAW. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service1 / 2
On Thursday, Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters purchased a full-page ad in the Duluth News Tribune, battling back against U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan’s effort to undo a moratorium on mining on federal land near the wilderness.2 / 2

DULUTH, Minn. — Conservation, hunting and angling groups are battling back against U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan's effort to undo a moratorium on mining on federal land near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Groups such as the Izaak Walton League of America and Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters kick-started a campaign this week for supporters to call Nolan's offices and tell the Democrat from Crosby to leave the two-year mining ban and a proposed environmental review in place.

On Thursday, June 22, Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters ratcheted up the debate by purchasing a full-page ad in the Duluth News Tribune. They've also scheduled a noon rally Friday, June 23, in front of Nolan's Duluth office.

"Representative Rick Nolan is giving away our hunting and fishing heritage in the Boundary Waters," the ad claims, asking sportsmen to call Nolan's office and tell him to support the two-year moratorium on mining exploration that accompanies a federal environmental review of potential mining impacts on the region's ecology. Critics are especially concerned about proposed copper-nickel mining projects that have the potential to release acidic runoff into the BWCAW watershed.

The moratorium was unveiled this past winter, in the last days of the Obama administration, which also canceled mining exploration leases to Twin Metals, the Chilean-owned company that wants to build a large underground copper mine along the Kawishiwi River, southeast of Ely and on the edge of the BWCAW.

Nolan on Tuesday brought three Republican congressmen to the Iron Range seeking their support in overturning the mining moratorium and allowing Twin Metals to advance. Nolan says the project can be done without harming the BWCAW.

Two of the Republicans are members of the Congressional Western Caucus which supports selling or giving federal lands to states and counties and opening national forests, parks, monuments and other federal areas to mining, ranching and oil and gas drilling. (The Republican Party platform also calls for transferring federal land to states.)

The introduction of the Congressional Western Caucus into the BWCAW region mining battle has catapulted the debate into a national spotlight.

"This might seem like a local issue, but it's really a national issue," said Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., at a news conference Monday in Mountain Iron. Republican Reps. Tom Emmer of Minnesota and Paul Gosar of Arizona also joined Nolan on a tour of the proposed Twin Metals site.

The issue centers on whether it's necessary to conduct a pre-emptive, generic study of potential mining along the edge of the BWCAW before any specific mine plan is proposed by Twin Metals or other companies. Sportsmen's and environmental groups say yes. But copper mining supporters say the traditional process is to wait until the company files for an environmental review and permits, and then let regulators decide if the specific mine would be a danger to the local environment.

Copper mining critics say that's too late, that the pressure is then on government regulators to allow the projects to advance despite their flaws. And they argue that the national forest land subject to the moratorium belongs to all Americans, not just Iron Range mining supporters.

"Rep. Nolan can't find enough people in Minnesota who support threatening our pristine Boundary Waters with dangerous sulfide-ore copper mining, so he brought in hired guns with an extreme anti-public lands agenda," said Jason Zabokrtsky, a Ely canoe and fishing guide and co-chair of Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters, in a statement. "The efforts of Reps. Nolan and Emmer to end the ongoing environmental review process in favor of the interests of a foreign mining company are an affront to Minnesota values. We urge them to rethink their priorities and join the large majority of Minnesotans who support the responsible environmental review process already underway."

A spokeswoman for Nolan said their office had received calls on the issue Thursday but not an unusual amount. In a written statement, Nolan said he would “never support or allow mining within the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area under ANY circumstances.”

But he added that “prohibiting exploration outside of the BWCA buffer zone, before a project proposal is even made, is simply irresponsible.

“We should never be afraid of exploration and discovery, or using science and facts to dictate important decisions,” Nolan said. “We must allow mining initiatives to proceed through the proper, rigorous and thorough environmental review process — using science, facts and technology to guide our review of actual projects and environmental technology.”

Scott Beauchamp, spokesman for Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters, said the group feels Nolan is “out of touch with Minnesotans.”

“Our polls show Minnesotans overwhelmingly oppose mining near the Boundary Waters,’’ he said.

The federal mining moratorium and study area covers about 235,000 acres on the edges of the BWCAW. Public hearings on what issues the federal study should consider are set for July 18 in St. Paul and July 25 in Virginia, Minn.