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Mining, the forest, and Trump: Why two MN Democrats are in a public fight

It's all over possible mining projects in 234,328 acres of the Superior National Forest.

The argument over mining in northeastern Minnesota's forest lands has two of the state's Democratic congressmen publicly at odds.

Rep. Rick Nolan (who represents the Iron Range and North Shore) wants 230,000 acres in the Superior National Forest to remain open to possible mining projects. And Rep. Betty McCollum (of St. Paul and the eastern Twin Cities area) is calling him out, accusing him of not protecting the environment after he asked President Donald Trump's administration for help.

Here's what led to their quarrel, and what each has said so far.

How we got here

OK, let's back up.

In January, the U.S. Forest Service – in its final days under the Obama administration – submitted a plan to make 234,328 acres of Superior National Forest land off limits to mine exploration. (Here's the order.) The reason was to protect the area from "potential adverse environmental impacts" that could come from exploring or developing mining operations.

That land all falls within Nolan's district (CD8), which covers the entire northeastern quadrant of Minnesota. That's an area where mining is a huge jobs creator.

When the Forest Service submitted that plan, Nolan called it "an anti-mining tactic and a waste of taxpayer dollars."

Nolan goes to the Trump administration

Fast forward a couple weeks. The Obama administration is out, the Trump administration is in.

Nolan sent a letter this week to the new faces at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, asking them to reverse the U.S. Forest Service's submitted plan to stop mine exploration on those acres because of its "negative impact" on his district. Though he reiterated he thinks water quality and wildlife needs to be protected.

"That being said, we should also never be afraid of exploration and discovery, or using science and facts to dictate important decisions," he said, arguing projects should go through the "proper, rigorous and thorough environmental process" that we've set up.

McCollum responds

Well, McCollum was none too pleased.

In a statement Wednesday, McCollum chided her fellow Minnesotan and Democrat Nolan for the letter, saying she's "deeply disappointed" in his request and saying the "assault on this natural treasure is misguided."

"Particularly disturbing is that Representative Nolan thinks the Trump administration will make its decision using ‘science and facts,’ which puts an outrageous amount of faith in an administration that denies climate science and has openly peddled ‘alternative facts,'" she said.

And Nolan fires back

Nolan responded later Wednesday, noting he was an original cosponsor of the legislation that established protections for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (which is true).

And he doubled down on the process that's in place, noting there aren't any specific projects planned for the land right now. This U.S. Forest Service proposal would stop projects even before anyone has the chance to explore whether it could be done safely, he argued.

"Denying any business activity before you know what it is – and what kind of pollution abatement technology they will use or how effective it will be – lacks common sense and subverts the good, thorough and elaborate environmental review process we have in place," he said.

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