President Donald Trump's announcement he will begin to peel back mining protections for a large swathe of Superior National Forest has provoked anger among environmental groups.
The president told a rally in Duluth on Wednesday that his administration "will soon be taking the first steps" to rescind the federal withdrawal of 234,000 acres of the forest, and "restore mineral exploration" to the area.
"America’s rich natural resources, of which your state has a lot, were put under lock and key," he said, of the Obama-era restrictions on northern Minnesota mining.
The announcement pleased mining companies and those living in the state's Iron Range, who rely on their industry for jobs and tax income, but it has horrified those seeking to protect the Superior National Forest and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Not only do they argue that more copper-nickel mining has the potential to damage an area of natural beauty, it could also negatively impact property values and a tourism industry that generates hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
"Trump’s statement shows, once again, that his administration has no respect for science, for public health, or for the tens of thousands who depend on the Boundary Waters for their livelihoods," Tim Schaefer, state director for Environment Minnesota, told BMTN.
"Automation is going to kill these mining jobs as fast as it can —jobs that may not even be union-protected. We need a realistic plan for the Arrowhead’s future and this simply isn’t it."
Doug Niemala, national campaign manager of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, says Trump's decision "flies in the face of 70 percent of Minnesotans who are opposed to this dangerous type of mining" near the Boundary Waters.
"It would irreparably damage the Boundary Waters and pollute some of the cleanest water in the world. Americans will lose its canoe country heritage forever," he added.
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The debate in northern Minnesota
Twin Metals, owned by Chilean mining company Antofagasta, wants to expand its copper-nickel mining operations into the forest, and intends to mine and build a processing plant in the same watershed as the Boundary Waters.
The forest area sits upon a huge mineral deposit, mostly copper and nickel, that has an estimated worth of $300-$500 billion, MinnPost reports.
Twin Metals had sought to renew two of its mineral leases for land in the forest a few miles from the Boundary Waters wilderness, but this was denied in December 2016 by the federal Bureau of Land Management, in consultation with the U.S. Forest Service.
A month later, former President Barack Obama moved to place a 20-year ban on mining exploration in the 234,000 acre area, with a 2-year moratorium put in place pending the results of a comprehensive scientific study of the potential impacts of mining.
But this past January, President Trump's administration gave an indication of its intentions for the forest, downgrading the comprehensive study to a more modest "environmental assessment."
On Wednesday, he confirmed he intends to rescind the ban on mining that area – potentially before the end of the assessment – pledging that any exploration for mineral deposits would be done "carefully."
Last month, the Department of the Interior reinstated Twin Metals' mineral leases, which said would allow it to resume its own "environmental study and project development activities."
But for all the complaints from environmental groups, there are many in northern Minnesota who approve of how Trump is handling the local economy.
The Star Tribune reported this week that business is booming on the Iron Range, a reversal of fortunes from a few years ago when a downturn had led to idled mining operations.
The introduction of 25 percent steel import tariffs has helped taconite mines particularly, and the lifting of restrictions on copper-nickel mining in Superior National Forest could bring more prosperity to mining towns.
The National Mining Association praised Trump’s rally announcement, Bloomberg reports, calling Obama’s action “nothing more than a parting gift from the Obama administration to activists – and one that was at odds with the residents, business and elected officials throughout the impacted communities."
Tourist businesses launch lawsuit
On Thursday, nine Boundary Water businesses launched a lawsuit challenging the reinstatement of Twin Metals' mineral leases.
The companies, including Ely Outfitting Company, Voyageur Outward Bound School, River Point Resort and Outfitting Company and Northstar Canoe, rely on Boundary Waters tourism to support local jobs.
They are suing the Department of the Interior, claiming it's responsible for "unlawful actions" regarding its handling of the renewal of the Twin Metals leases.
Steve Piragis, of Piragis Northwoods Company, said in a news release his customers would be "repelled by water and noise pollution," while "others will cease to visit at all because it will no longer be the place they love and remember."