Report from the Sigurd Olson Lecture Series

Last week, the Friends was proud to bring Tim Bristol, Trout Unlimited’s Alaska director, to Minnesota as part of the annual Sigurd Olson Lecture Series, co-sponsored by Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness. While in the state, Bristol presented about his work on issues like management of vast roadless areas of the Tongass National Forest, and the massive Pebble Mine copper mining proposal in Bristol Bay.

Tim spoke in the Twin Cities, Duluth, Ely and Ashland, Wisconsin. His presentation at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment was recorded and is available for viewing online.

In the Institute on the Environment’s blog, writer Monique Dubos reported on Bristol’s talk:

Tim Bristol is playing offense. That’s how the Trout Unlimited Alaska director described his group’s efforts to protect Alaska’s vital watersheds at the Feb. 20 Frontiers in the Environment seminar, “Watersheds: Clean Water, Wild Places, Healthy Communities.”

Trout Unlimited Alaska is fighting to protect two critical habitats and communities that rely on them: Bristol Bay in southwestern Alaska and the Tongass National Forest in the southeastern panhandle. Both areas boast productive salmon fisheries that have vital economic benefit to the communities that rely on them, said Bristol. Both are at risk from development projects that threaten the health of their watersheds.

Continue reading…

Institute on the Environment staff member Dan Kunitz also tweeted during the talk. Here are a few highlights from him:





Thank you to Tim, the organizers at each location, and everyone who attended!

A sense of stewardship

Matt Hannah

Matt Hannah

I recently had the opportunity to serve as a volunteer for Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness. I traveled with my wife up to Brainerd to discuss the Precious Waters film with the Brainerd Lakes Audubon Society.

Despite the temperature being -10 degrees and the night windy, 40 people from all over central Minnesota turned out for the film. A good turnout on such a cold night attests to two things: one, Minnesotans are a tough bunch; two, our lakes, rivers, and streams are very important to us.

As we opened discussion after the film, I thought to myself: “this is exactly what needs to be happening around this issue.” With so much at stake, we need to let our neighbors — and especially our legislators — know how we feel. So many different organizations have shown Precious Waters in the last few years, but ultimately everyone’s concern is the same: the lakes and rivers of the BWCA and northern Minnesota are what make this state special.

When the safety assurances of industry seem like wishful thinking and lack historical precedent, we have serious doubts about whether these projects should proceed.

Every time I talk with Minnesotans about wilderness conservation, I feel a deep sense of gratitude, but also a sense of responsibility. I am proud to live in a state where so many people have made it their responsibility to take care of our beautiful and wild places. Volunteering on this issue has deepened my connection with my fellow citizens, and to the land itself.

I felt honored to be speaking up on behalf of our lake country, and on behalf of such a great organization. Let’s make all of our voices heard so the next generation can enjoy the treasure we have today.

Request a Precious Waters DVD and resource packet and organize a showing of this documentary with your group, friends or other organization.

“Sometimes hardship creates the brightest beauty of all”

Cori after hiking across the lake at -22

Cori after hiking across the lake at -22

This past weekend, Friends staff and members strapped on their boots, parkas, and fleece masks, and headed north to YMCA Camp Menogyn for the 4th annual Winter Sampler Weekend—a three day adventure of skiing, showshoeing, and dogsledding along the Gunflint Trail.

Being new to the Friends’ staff, it was my first trip up to Menogyn for this member event and I was blown away not only by how much fun we had, but also by the deep sense of hope and purpose I returned home with.

Sitting down to breakfast on our first morning at camp, I looked around the room, matching faces with the names I had gleaned from registration. Looking around, it struck me just how diverse our group of winter enthusiasts was. With literally a 60 year span of ages between us, three generations of skiers, hikers, and snowshoers had come together this weekend out of love for a place. Each one of us had a different story, different life experience, but what ran through each person, what drove us north on one of the coldest weekends of the year, was a sense of connection and affection for the open and quiet landscapes of the BWCA. For an experience of “spiritual oneness” as Sigurd Olson once called it, and the opportunity to share those experiences with younger generations.

That morning, as kid after kid bundled themselves until all you could see were tiny openings with excited eyes behind them, and barreled out of the dining hall, it became ever more clear to me why we do the work that we do. The looks on their faces that weekend conveyed the same emotions that I have when I am in the Boundary Waters. And, though they were not my own children, disjointedly running in their boots out into the wilderness, more than anything, I want to make sure that these kids have this remarkable place to provide them face splitting joy well into the future.

My grandfather once remarked that sometimes hardship creates the brightest beauty of all. Which I think holds true in many instances—the explosion of wildflowers after a forest burns, the crystalline and sparkling landscape of negative degree weather, the sense of community that is created when a place you love becomes threatened. We as a state are facing big decisions in our near future that will undoubtedly affect the BWCA. We have no insignificant task ahead of us, but every day we spend being advocates for the place we love, every letter to a legislator, every phone call and conversation with a friend, is a voice, a vote, for the wilderness and not one goes unheard.

The work we do, bundled in the face of hardship, is to create and sustain beauty for these twenty kids, their peers, and their children in turn. I was blessed to spend three days with them, their parents, and grandparents and I can tell you, there is beauty in the next generation.

Winter Wilderness Sampler Photos by Ian Kimmer

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:

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:

Senator Al Franken:
309 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510
(202) 224-5641
email through webpage:

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.