What the Wilderness Needs

A trip to Ely offers insights into businesses which the wilderness supports, and inspiration to keep working for its future.

Photo: Flickr/Chad Fennell

Photo: Flickr/Chad Fennell

I went to Ely this Tuesday, to learn from people who live and work on the edge of the wilderness. It was refreshing to spend time in person with our Northern Communities staff member Ian Kimmer and, frankly, to just get the heck out of the office.

On my way north, I passed several billboards that spoke directly to the wild character of where I was headed. One showed a family dog sledding down a cathedral-like forest winter trail that went on forever. Another showed a couple relaxing next to a wood fire with a lovely view of an undeveloped lake, the pine trees on its shore drooping with snow. I related to both and bumped up the cruise control.

Ian and I spent the entire day with people who make their living in this country, right next to the 1 million acre wilderness. Either through running canoe tripping programs into and around the Superior National Forest or providing cabins with those lovely views of the lake, these people know the woods, lakes and trails and the way to get around them better than anyone. They also know how to make at least a little money, for themselves and their employees, sharing this asset with other people – the people the billboards are talking to.

We learned how sulfide mining is affecting not only their business but how it is affecting them personally. In some cases, the noise and traffic from exploratory drilling has actually created a significant decrease in their operating revenue. One told me point blank, mining and tourism are not compatible and his friend is considering leaving the home to which he just retired if mining occurs. Another said these waters and woods are everyone’s personal legacy. They are healthy now, even after so much conflict and division over the years. People love them in different ways. But they are providing a living for many of us. If we allow them to become degraded, we and our children lose.

He pointed out the window across the lake to the snowy white and grey wilderness beyond and said, “Your job is to preserve this. We need to do this and we need to succeed.” I couldn’t agree more and that’s a job I am honored to do.

State rushes to judgment on environmental safety of sulfide mining

Originally published on MinnPost.

Superior National Forest

Superior National Forest

On my mother’s bookshelf rests a yellowing old cookbook, a fundraiser item for the women’s circle in her childhood Presbyterian church. “Predestined to Be Good.”  Well, perhaps that was a bit of a hasty determination. A flip through the pages reveals some out-right scary recipes. Lime and lemon Jell-O in chicken salad?

The Minnesota government is suffering from the same rush to judgment in its response to proposed sulfide mining projects in the state. State agency staff with oversight responsibility have prematurely declared mine projects to be environmentally safe before seeing proof and despite the industry’s long and perfect track record of polluting lakes, rivers and streams everywhere sulfide mining has been done. This is not a recipe for making sure the same thing won’t happen here.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) recently worked with PolyMet Mining Company to examine possible environmental impacts for the company’s proposal, which would be Minnesota’s first sulfide mine. In 2009, the DNR decided the draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) had thoroughly analyzed the potential impacts and mitigation measures to deal with pollution. It released the draft EIS for public review. But the draft EIS was a disaster. Rush to judgment #1.

The DNR and PolyMet proposed mine design would cause 2,000 years of water pollution into surrounding streams and rivers without a plan to deal with it (or pay for it). It would destroy or harm 1,600 acres of high quality wetlands without adequately mitigating those impacts. The proposal failed to collect enough information to understand the risks, failed to adequately measure the extent of likely impacts, and failed to sufficiently explore alternative designs to prevent pollution to surrounding waters.

EPA gave project an ‘F’

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was alarmed and gave the project its lowest rating of “Environmentally Unsatisfactory-Inadequate.” An unequivocal “F.”  The DNR and industry, red-faced, went back to work to revise the EIS, and they’ve been at work for nearly three years trying to figure out how to get it right. So far, Minnesotans have not seen a plan that shows that to be possible.

That hasn’t stopped Minnesota’s government from declaring the project safe. Despite the decidedly unsafe first proposal, the track record of pollution and taxpayer liability elsewhere, and an obligation to evaluate the facts in an unbiased fashion, Minnesota’s DNR is already publicly stating that this type of mining can be done right.

In the July-August 2012 edition of the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, then head of the DNR’s Division of Lands and Minerals Larry Kramka, noted, “If we have this vast resource here, if we know we can do it the right way, aren’t we somewhat obliged to mine it here?” How, one must wonder, does he already know we can do it right?  Rush to judgment #2.

Serious risks downplayed

In November, Minnesota’s Environmental Quality Board released “Minnesota’s Environmental and Energy Report Card” (PDF), written with input from eight state agencies, including the DNR and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. The report is being distributed at a series of public meetings being held across the state called the “Environmental Congress.” Under a section entitled “Managing our Minerals and Mines,” our state government makes this pronouncement about sulfide mining: “With advances in processing technology and environmental impact mitigation, extraction is now economically and environmentally viable.”  Rush to judgment #3.

These statements reveal a predetermined opinion that downplays real, serious and long-lasting risks to places like the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Lake Superior, as well as to our pocketbooks if taxpayers get left paying for the clean-up. Our state agencies should objectively analyze mine proposals and review all the facts before making determinations.

With so much at stake, we need confidence in the decisions these agencies will make. Calling Jell-O chicken salad “good” does not make it good, nor does it instill confidence about the cooks.

Land exchange up for vote at St. Louis County board

White Pine Lake, Superior National Forest

White Pine Lake, Superior National Forest

On Tuesday, December 18, the St. Louis County Board of Commissioners is expected to vote on a resolution that asks Minnesota’s Congressional Delegation to support a massive exchange of lands out of the Superior National Forest and to the State of Minnesota for logging, mining and leasing purposes.

More than 86,000 acres of land would be lost from the Superior National Forest with potential limitations to public access to fish, hunt, snowmobile, hike, and engage in other activities.

The resolution is especially designed to put pressure on Senators Franken and Klobuchar to introduce land exchange legislation by showing local support for the idea.  Please take a moment to contact both Senators and the County Commissioners to voice your opposition to the exchange.

If you are a St. Louis County resident, please inform them of this.  If you have questions, contact Ian Kimmer, Northern Communities Director for Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness: ian@friends-bwca.org.

St. Louis County Commissioners
Find contact info for your commissioner.

Senator Amy Klobuchar:
302 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510
phone: 202-224-3244
email through webpage: http://klobuchar.senate.gov/

Senator Al Franken:
309 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510
(202) 224-5641
email through webpage: http://www.franken.senate.gov/

Reasons to oppose this legislation:

Scale of Twin Metals mine proposal grows dramatically

The mining company Twin Metals, which is developing a mine proposal just outside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, recently increased the estimated size of the mineral deposit it controls. The Star Tribune‘s Josephine Marcotty reports:

The company that controls mining rights to 32,000 acres on the doorstep of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area said Tuesday that the land contains 19 percent more copper, gold and palladium than it previously estimated, making Minnesota home to one of the world’s largest deposits of precious metals.

“These are not minor mineral holdings,” said Bob McFarlin, vice president for government and public affairs for Twin Metals, a partner in the planned project, which released the results of the new geological analysis. “The state is sitting on an absolute economic juggernaut for generations to come.”

Twin Metals, a joint venture between Duluth Metals, a Canadian company, and Antofagasta PLC of Chile, one of the largest international mine operators, is proposing an underground mine and processing plant that would be one of the world’s largest.

The 13.7 billion pounds of copper the company estimates are contained in the deposit is a significant amount. By comparison, the controversial Pebble Mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay contains about 80 billion pounds of copper.

A season for transition

Visiting Sigurd Olson's Listening Point

Visiting Sigurd Olson’s Listening Point

I have been honored to serve the Boundary Waters, and the people who love it, for the past four-and-a-half years. But today is my last day as our full-time Communications Director.

I’m not going anywhere far or fast, and you will still see my name on future communications. This wilderness and this cause are simply too important. I will be pursuing other projects – from writing to being a good dad (I became a father in March) – but staying involved part-time at least until my replacement is hired.

Thank you to everyone who has supported the organization and me personally over the years. This organization is doing incredible work and I know my colleagues will expand on those efforts in smart and passionate ways in the future, and with your help.

Onward for wilderness.

Video: Autumn in the Boundary Waters

Thanks to Alex Horner for sharing this hypnotic and beautiful video featuring two fall canoe trips with his dad:

Boundary Waters from Alex Horner on Vimeo.

Details from the Trail — introducing the new Firegrate Review

The introduction to Volume 2 of The Firegrate Review, the Friends’ canoe country chapbook, published this month and available for purchase here.

Firegrate Review front cover

Cover photo by Nate Ptacek.

In my introduction to Volume 1 of The Firegrate Review, I wrote that “every canoe trip is a story.” That held true for me in 2011, as I managed to paddle into Lake Insula just as the Pagami Creek Fire was set to explode into the biggest wildfire in the recorded history of Minnesota.

My friend Stephen Wilbers, who has shared excerpts from his latest Boundary Waters book in this publication, told me recently that he could not have written his books without keeping a detailed journal of every trip he has taken to the wilderness over the past several decades. It made me think about how I can recall each trip I have been on, but it is usually just one or two highlights: A night at a terrific campsite, a day with a bad headwind, a moose or the northern lights or a long, hard portage. I have to consult my own logs to remember the minutia.

A good story is about the details, and that is why Stephen’s journals are essential to his books. If you read his work, you inevitably feel like you were there with him, his dad, his son and the other companions that joined him in the wilderness. That is because he includes details like breaking a fishing rod, a conversation around the campfire, a solo paddle after dinner on a perfectly still lake.

Even though my experience with the Pagami Creek Fire is a story I will probably tell for the rest of my life, I hold fast to parts of that trip that had nothing to do with the fire.

One afternoon while we were camped on Insula, there was not a breath of wind, the water was perfectly calm, and the air was hazy with smoke from the fire, which was several miles away. A quarter-mile across the lake, a group of young men landed their canoe on an island and took turns jumping off a 15-foot cliff into the water.

We watched them from our campsite, and we would see the splash when they hit the water, but only a second later would we hear it. That sense of the empty expanse of water between us and the island was powerful – it amplified the vastness of the wilderness we were in, and how empty it was of humans.

That was my most recent Boundary Waters trip. I went without in 2012, as my wife Katie and I welcomed our daughter Annika into the world in March. When Katie and I were 18 and certainly not thinking about marriage or children, we took our first canoe trip together. We spent the last night on a little lake near Saganaga, with a short portage into it but no other route out of it. A dead-end lake, with just one campsite – my favorite kind.

It was late August. As dusk fell, silence settled over the lake. We sat at the water’s edge enjoying the quiet and the flat water reflecting the silver light of evening. We spoke in whispers and drank tea. Finally, we sat without talking, lost in the wild world. After a while, I decided to dump the rest of the tea on the ground, and that little sound was enough to startle a beaver which was swimming nearby so that it slapped its tail and dove underwater, which startled some ducks so that they started up quacking, and in general bedlam seemed to erupt in our corner of the lake. We laughed with the loons.

These moments are powerful yet typical wilderness experiences, and probably resonate with more paddlers than having a front seat to a raging wildfire.

A sense of familiarity in the Boundary Waters is what brings many of us back to it again and again. It is a feeling often described as being at home. Sigurd Olson believed humans had sat around campfires for so long that it had deep psychological effects on us; it can make us feel more content than sitting in front of a television or a computer ever could.

In a recent conversation with Stephen and another wilderness writer, Larry Christianson, a poet who helped edit this edition of the chapbook, we talked about where else we felt at home. I told them how I had recently been driving around my hometown on a Friday night and felt like I had formative stories to tell on nearly every block of the old neighborhood. It is as if my life is written on that landscape.

The Boundary Waters is the same way. It is where some of our most profound stories live: we go there with close friends or make them on the trail, or with family to strengthen our bond, or with our girlfriends or husbands to learn what it is to work as a pair while paddling a tandem canoe. A campsite stands out in memory not just because it has a good view, or a lake is not only remembered for the fish it has provided, but because of the specific stories shared there. Our lives are written on ancient rocks, stands of cedar, and the water that forever weaves it all together.

One day on Insula last year, two of our party went off looking for walleye, and two of us stayed at the campsite, more interested in leisure than fishing. Jake had good reason – he was home for two weeks on leave from serving as an Army helicopter pilot in Afghanistan. We passed the afternoon peacefully, talking and wandering around our spacious site.

Toward the end of the afternoon, Jake and I got in the canoe and paddled down a bay near the campsite to look around and wet a line. A family was fishing and they asked us to look out for a big northern pike with their lure in its mouth; we rescued a dragonfly from the water; and we set our paddles down and let the silence roar in our ears as the evening sunlight shone through the trees and everything was still.

We paddled back out and saw that the family was cleaning a fish on shore – they had managed to catch the big pike again, the lure it had snapped off earlier still hooked in its lip. When we got back to camp, our companions were back too, with four walleye ready for dinner.

The story of that trip includes watching our best fisherman and cook prepare those fillets over a stove he wouldn’t stop complaining about, laughing at his antics and eating chunks of fish that were too hot but delicious in only the way a fish which was swimming in the lake a few hours before can be. It includes the northern lights which we watched with full bellies later, and the 100 geese which flew high overhead in the pink morning sky, a distant but sure sign of autumn on the way.

The story also includes the plume of smoke on the horizon, the urgency of the Forest Service rangers who escorted us out of the woods, the near tragedy as some of those rangers, a couple of them friends, were nearly consumed by the blaze just a day after we left and only a mile from where we had camped. The trip’s small details make the story whole.

Several writers have shared their stories in this publication, and on behalf of the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, I’m grateful. The story is always more important than its telling, though, so I urge you to make as many of your own as you can.

Buy The Firegrate Review here.

6 Boundary Waters programs at this weekend’s Midwest Mountaineering Adventure Expo

I’ve taken the liberty of making your weekend plans. Rather than preparing for an unseemly political scrap with your brother-in-law at Thanksgiving dinner, your weekend might be better spent mingling with the state’s leading environmental and outdoor organizations, attending a presentation about sulfide mining, getting great deals on the finest outdoor gear, and drinking fabulous local beer. Don’t thank me, thank Midwest Mountaineering.

Midwest Mountaineering is hosting their 55th bi-annual Outdoor Adventure Expo this Friday (11/16) through Sunday (11/18). In addition to food, drinks, raffles, and sales, this event will also be showcasing over 85 presentations given by speakers from around the world. The list of speakers and programs covers an impressive array of subjects concerning the great outdoors, but I’ve rounded up a few here that Boundary Waters enthusiasts won’t want to miss:

  1. “Sulfide Mining in Northern Minnesota”
    Paul Danicic, Executive Director of the Friends of the Boundary Waters
    Saturday, November 17, 3:30pm, Midwest Mountaineering—Expedition Stage 
  2. Premier Showing of “Sled Dogs to Saint Paul: The Race for Clean Water”
    Frank Moe, Guide and former MN House Representative
    Saturday, November 17, 6:00pm, U of M—Humphrey Center, Cowles Auditorium
  3.  “The Coolest Backcountry Campsites on the North Country Trail in Minnesota”
    Todd McMahon, Trail Guru
    Saturday, November 17, 10:30am, U of M—Hanson Hall, Room 104 
  4. “Got Clean Water? — How Would Sulfide Mining Pollution Affect Me?”
    Bruce Johnson, Environmental Scientist and Outdoorsman
    Saturday, November 17, 9:15am, U of M – Hanson Hall, Room 105
  5. “Looking for Wolf 989”
    Jerritt Johnston, Director of Education at the International Wolf Center
    Friday, November 16, 6:45pm, U of M – Hanson Hall, Room 102
  6. Winter Camping: The Basics
    Bear Paulsen, Midwest Mountaineering staff
    Saturday, November 17, 10:30am, U of M – Humphrey Center, Atrium

If you do come out this weekend, be sure to drop by and say hello. The Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness will have a booth at the Expo all weekend. Visit the Expo website for more information and a schedule of the festivities.

Rep.-elect Nolan plans to start fresh on land exchange effort

Rick Nolan

Rick Nolan

In a post-election interview with the Associated Press, new Eighth Congressional District representative Rick Nolan indicated that Rep. Cravaack’s contentious BWCAW school trust land exchange bill would be scrapped.

Instead, Nolan said he will make resolving the school trust lands issue a priority, but will abandon Cravaack’s unilateral move and seek a solution acceptable to all stakeholders:

Plans to swap state-owned land in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for federal land are probably dead and will need revisiting in the next Congress, U.S. Rep.-elect Rick Nolan said.

Passing the bill in the House was one of the main accomplishments of GOP Rep. Chip Cravaack, whom Nolan defeated in Tuesday’s election. It would fulfill a long-held goal of trading strictly protected state-owned land that’s locked inside the BWCA for federal land in northeastern Minnesota that could bring revenue for the state’s school trust fund.

The Sierra Club and other groups have fought the proposal because they say it would reduce environmental protections on the Superior National Forest land that the state receives, which likely would be offered up for mining and logging leases. They’d prefer to see the federal government buy out the state-owned land instead.

In an interview Thursday with The Associated Press, Nolan said he doesn’t believe the bill will advance before the congressional session ends because it lacks enough bipartisan support and companion legislation in the Senate.

Nolan — who also was a congressman three decades ago — said he hopes to work with Iron Range legislators, along with the governor and the state’s U.S. senators, “to put together a good bipartisan proposal that all the parties and stakeholders are comfortable with. And it’ll be a high priority for us to get that done.”

Where the Boundary Waters begins, mining intrudes

Wilderness and industry meet on a BWCAW portage.

Sign of the times on the Spruce Road

Sign of the times on the Spruce Road

The South Kawishiwi River BWCAW entry point portage off of Spruce Road has seen many campers, young and old, begin a life-changing exploration of the wilderness. The deep woods spill north and west for miles and miles beyond this point. The river flows through rock outcroppings and islands steadily toward lakes unmatched in rugged wild character, water and wildlife – Gabbro, Bald Eagle, Lake One, beyond.

Recently a south Minneapolis school contacted the Friends about a student group exploring sulfide mining issues in Wisconsin and Minnesota. They wanted to hear about the potential consequences to the Boundary Waters and northern Minnesota if these projects go forward.

We met at the South Kawishiwi River portage. Knowing some of the kids may have never experienced wilderness before, I wanted to explain the risks in terms of what can really be lost — including the serenity that is to be treasured in a place like the BWCA.

The location, to that end, served well. As I stood on the portage, the monotone grinding of industrial machinery echoed across the forest. The quiet that stills the soul was gone. As I spoke to the group about the costs and benefits, history and future, we had to stop many times as large trucks rumbled down the two-lane dirt road.

Wild places are good for humanity. We gain strength as a people from meeting our entire spectrum of needs — not only the materials that fill our pockets but the experiences that build our souls.

The Boundary Waters is a wilderness, an experience, like no other. And for at least half the students on this trip, their first experience of the Boundary Waters was largely defined by industry, not creation. And for the other half, the experience they once knew as pristine is now tarnished and, if we do not stand for wilderness today, perhaps lost in some important ways forever.

I regret that we are already seeing the loss of wilderness character in the Boundary Waters. I know many see the BWCAW as one place we as a society do well to treasure. But I also know some see it’s protections as a hindrance to development.

At the very line where the boundary of the wilderness meets the development of industry, the South Kawishiwi River portage, it is clear that if we want our children and their children to know a place of natural peace and unparalleled beauty unspoiled by the machines of man, we must think hard about the harm we could do to ourselves with developments like sulfide mining in Minnesota.