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The Biden administration on Wednesday began a process that could result in a ban on mining operations just upstream of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

The Departments of the Interior and Agriculture announced the measure Wednesday morning, with the stated goal of protecting "a unique natural wonder and one of the jewels of the National Wilderness Preservation System."

“A place like the Boundary Waters should be enjoyed by and protected for everyone, not only today but for future generations,” said Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland in the announcement.

The move represents a significant setback for Twin Metals' proposed sulfide-ore copper mine between Ely and Babbitt, the subject of a yearslong legal and political fight. The company, in a statement, said it was "deeply disappointed" in the move.

But it's a major victory for groups and organizations worried about the potential environmental impacts of mining near one of the most-visited protected natural sites in all the U.S.

"The Boundary Waters is a paradise of woods and water," said Becky Rom, national chair of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, in a news release Wednesday. "It is an ecological marvel, a world-class outdoor destination, and an economic engine for hundreds of businesses and many thousands of people. This is a great first step on the pathway to permanent protection."

Other environmental groups also celebrated the decision.

So what does the administration's announcement actually entail?

For the next two years, there will be a ban on any federal mining leases for the 225,378 acres in question, located in the Rainy River Watershed upstream from the BWCAW. During that time, the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service will conduct an analysis, looking at how mining in that area might impact the surrounding environment. The agencies will also field public comments on the matter.

Once that process (called a mineral withdrawal) is completed, the Secretary of the Interior could institute a 20-year ban (the maximum allowed under the law) on any new mining or mineral exploration in the area. A permanent ban would require Congressional action.

The Obama administration had initiated this same study in late 2016, but it was canceled by the Trump White House just a few months prior to its conclusion

Supporters of the Twin Metals proposal and mining in that region of Minnesota argue there is a significant economic impact. That includes Rep. Spencer Igo, a Republican from Grand Rapids, who argued Wednesday the Biden administration's decision puts economic development at risk. Twin Metals itself said its mine would create 750 direct jobs in northeast Minnesota and lead to $1.7 billion in economic development.

But a study from Harvard University found protecting the BWCAW from the proposed sulfide-ore copper mine would create more jobs and income in a 20-year period. U.S. DFL Rep. Betty McCollum hailed the "science-based decision making" behind Wednesday's move, saying the study is needed "to understand the impacts that sulfide-ore mining could have on this priceless reserve of fresh water, the biodiverse habitat it supports, and the economic livelihood of the surrounding community."

A July 2020 poll found nearly 70% of Minnesotans support a ban on copper mining in the Superior National Forest. 

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