WRITTEN BY: Hudson Kingston, MCEA Staff Attorney
I might be the only one who will miss 2016. Not that I’ll miss the endless politicking, or the unbelievable run of bad news, no, but because 2016 was the official UN International Year of the Pulses. For one shining year, lentils had their own twitter feed. Not since 2008’s Year of the Potato has the UN been so compelling (by contrast, let’s just forget about 2014). In this respect 2016 is a tough act to follow. So I was pleasantly surprised when I read that UN had decided to unveil 2017 as the “International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development.”
Sustainable tourism for development is an important concept, and one that is especially important for Minnesota right now. In December, in keeping with the idea of promoting sustainable development, the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture agreed (press release) to “pause” mining exploration and leasing near the Boundary Waters Wilderness and Voyageurs National Park. This pause will give the agencies time to study whether the dangers of sulfide mining are too high to permit it on the doorstep to these amazing wild recreation areas. (For more explanation of the government’s action, please see my colleague’s blog here.)
What’s important to understand is that the agencies aren’t saying that nature trumps the economy, just the opposite. They are interested in how the sustainable economy that exists around and because of these areas is likely threatened by unsustainable industries that produce short-term jobs and long-term pollution (likely for hundreds, if not thousands, of years in the case of water pollution). As Bill Forsberg Sr. wrote in 2013: “Outdoor recreation in Minnesota generates $11.6 billion in consumer spending, 118,000 direct jobs paying $3.4 billion in wages, and $646 million in state and local taxes.”
The growing sustainable tourism industry in Minnesota depends on pristine wilderness worth visiting.
Perplexingly, a month after the above announcement, one of the same federal agencies (the U.S. Forest Service, part of the Department of Agriculture) failed to acknowledge the danger that pollution poses to Minnesota’s sustainable economies. In approving the Environmental Impact Statement for PolyMet’s proposed NorthMet project, the USFS failed to consider the important economies that are tied to clean water in Lake Superior (i.e. winter skiing, summer paddling, and beer, to name a few). Such approval belies Minnesotan’s love for, and reliance upon, the world’s greatest Great Lake. The threat of long-term water pollution from the St. Louis River puts all Duluth industries and people in danger of economic and health harms.
In keeping with the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development and the promise of durable development in Northern Minnesota, mining projects that risk destroying the resources of the area should be looked at with extreme skepticism by government decisionmakers. Sustainable development is not just a buzzword for UN dignitaries—as Aaron Brown wrote in a recent piece on PolyMet:
"This is why I argue that we need to think differently about the economic future of Northern Minnesota. If you like mining, that’s great. We need minerals. The jobs are great. But as a region, we have to plan for a much broader future — one stunted whenever the word “jobs” is tied solely to a shaky commodities business that cares not a lick whether Iron Range towns live or die."
Creating a broader economy through sustainable industries, such as outdoor recreation, also protects against a boom-bust economy based on producing commodities. Sustainable tourism is one area where Northern Minnesota has outsized potential and a unique replenishable resource, its breathtaking natural places. Sustainable economic development can keep our state both prosperous and habitable for centuries to come.