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Obama Administration Takes Steps to Protect Watershed of the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area

Agencies deny sulfide-ore copper lease renewal application; Commit to further study of potential impacts of mining near pristine watershed

WASHINGTON, Dec. 15, 2016 - The U.S. Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture today announced important steps to protect the watershed of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), a spectacular area in northeastern Minnesota comprised of more than a million acres of lakes and forests.

Citing broad concerns from thousands of public comments and input about potential impacts of mining on the wilderness area's watershed, fish and wildlife, and the nearly $45 million recreation economy, the agencies today took actions that denied an application for renewal of two hard rock mineral leases in the area, as well as initiated steps to withdraw key portions of the watershed from new mineral permits and leases.

"The Boundary Waters is a natural treasure, special to the 150,000 who canoe, fish, and recreate there each year, and is the economic life blood to local business that depend on a pristine natural resource," said Secretary Vilsack. "I have asked Interior to take a time out, conduct a careful environmental analysis and engage the public on whether future mining should be authorized on any federal land next door to the Boundary Waters."

It was in recognition of its irreplaceable resources that Congress set aside the Boundary Waters more than 50 years ago. Today, more than 150,000 annual visitors help drive the local economy through tourism and outdoor recreation.

"There's a reason that the Boundary Waters is one of the most visited wilderness area in America: it's an incredible place," said U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell. "Today's best available science is helping us understand the value of the land and water and potential impacts of development in places like the Boundary Waters. This is the right action to take to avoid irrevocably damaging this watershed and its recreation-based economy, while also taking the time and space to review whether to further protect the area from all new mining."

As the surface management agency, the Agriculture Department's U.S. Forest Service has issued a decision withholding consent to the renewal of two mineral leases located on lands near the wilderness area within the Superior National Forest in northern Minnesota. As a result of that decision, the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the agency managing the mineral deposits, is subsequently rejecting the renewal application, which was submitted by Twin Metals Minnesota in 2012.

The two leases, initially issued in 1966 and most recently renewed in 2004, would have allowed for the mining of copper, nickel, and associated minerals from the leased lands. However, no mineral production has occurred on either lease since the original date of issuance.

In not consenting to the lease renewals, the Forest Service cited the potential risk of environmental contamination of the surrounding watershed as a key concern. The two leases are located directly adjacent to and within three miles of the BWCAW, respectively. It is well established that acid mine drainage is a significant environmental risk at sulfide ore mine sites like the one proposed for these leased lands and in a water-based ecosystem like the Boundary Waters because contaminated water could have dramatic impacts to aquatic life, sport fisheries, and recreation-based uses and communities.

The BWCAW is the only large lake-land wilderness in the National Wilderness Preservation System. In establishing the wilderness area, Congress directed the Forest Service to maintain its water quality, protect its fish and wildlife, and minimize the environmental impacts associated with mineral development.

This past summer, the Forest Service held two listening sessions and a 30-day public input period related to the potential lease renewals and received more than 30,000 comments. The decision to withhold consent and study the impacts of this type of mining near the Boundary Waters echoes the concerns of many in the area, including former Vice President Walter Mondale and Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton, who has similarly said that the state will not authorize or enter into any new state access or lease agreements for mining operations near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

The Forest Service also submitted an application to the Secretary of the Interior to withdraw key portions of the watershed that flows into the BWCAW from new mineral permits and leases.

The BLM will review the withdrawal application and issue a notice in the Federal Register to segregate the lands - essentially, place them in a 'time out' - for up to two years, subject to valid existing rights. To preserve the status quo during that 'time out,' no new mineral exploration or development applications would be accepted while a thorough, scientific environmental analysis is conducted. Upon publication of the Federal Register notice, there will be an initial 90-day public review period for the proposed withdrawal and additional analysis during the segregation period that will include further public involvement, including public meetings.

During the segregation period, BLM and the Forest Service will conduct an environmental analysis to determine if the lands should be withdrawn for a period of 20 years. This process will invite participation by the public, tribes, environmental groups, industry, state and local government, as well as other stakeholders. By law, the Department of the Interior can only withdraw these lands for a maximum of 20 years. Only Congress can legislate a permanent withdrawal.

The segregation or any future withdrawal would not prohibit ongoing or future mining activities on any valid existing rights or prohibit any other authorized uses on private lands. Other National Forest management activities that are not related to mineral exploration or development, including permits, licenses, and cooperative agreements compatible with the intended use on the lands, would still be permissible at the discretion of the authorized officer.

Additional information and documentation:

Signed Decision Document (Format PDF / 3MB)

Forest Service Letter (Format PDF / 10 MB)

Map of Proposed Withdrawal Area (Format PDF / 1 MB)


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