MCEA Staff blog regularly about current environmental issues and how they relate to MCEA's work.
Guest Blogger: Char Miller
Char Miller is one of the Country's foremost experts on the U.S. Park and Forest Services. He recently published a book entitled "America's Great National Forests, Wildernesses, and Grasslands" and is the author of 10 other books. In addition, he is the editor or co-editor of 10 more volumes and a regular contributor of essays, commentary and reviews to professional journals, newspapers and online media. Char shares MCEA's concern about recent mining proposals in proximity to the BWCA. Visit our Mining page to learn more.
The celebrated Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northeastern Minnesota, which constitutes one million acres of the Superior National Forest, is among the most pristine riparian ecosystems in the United States. With any luck, it will remain so.
But that luck will depend on whether the US Forest Service, which manages the unspoiled landscape, rejects the request of Twin Metals—a wholly owned subsidiary of Antofogasta, the Chilean mining conglomerate—to renew its federal mineral leases in the Rainy River watershed. Although the Bureau of Land Management oversees such leases, because the resources to be mined, including copper and nickel, underlay portions of the Superior National Forest, the Forest Service must consent to any mining operation. As part of its analysis of Twin Metals’ request, the federal agency is conducting a 30-day public comment period that concludes on July 20 and holding public hearings.
Yet so worried is the Forest Service about the potential of sulfide mining to severely disrupt the Boundary Waters that it issued an advisory in advance of public comment. "The Forest Service is deeply concerned by the location of the leases within the same watershed as the BWCAW, and by the inherent risks associated with potential copper, nickel and other sulfide mining operations within that watershed. Those risks exist during all phases of mine development, implementation and long-term closure and remediation." The range of potential impacts is expansive, and includes projected deterioration in “water quantity and quality, contamination from acid mine drainage, and seepage of tailings water, tailings basin failures and waste rock treatment locations. Based on these concerns, the Forest Service is considering withholding consent for lease renewal."
These aesthetic virtues and recreational values were why the Boundary Waters area was first established in the 1920s; they are what makes the Superior National Forest, superior.
So argued Arthur Carhart. A landscape architect and wilderness advocate, he was the Forest Service's first recreational planner, joining the agency in 1919. Carhart made an immediate mark. Assigned to develop a plan for roads into and cabins surrounding Trappers Lake in Colorado’s White River National Forest, he advised his supervisors that the best and highest use of the lake and its environs was no use at all. The agency accepted his advice and by implication Carhart’s subsequent conclusion about the need to protect other imperiled landscapes. “There is a limit to the number of lakes in existence,” he wrote Aldo Leopold, who was also pushing for wilderness designations throughout the National Forest system, “there is a limit to the mountainous areas of the world, [and] there are portions of natural scenic beauty which are God-made.” Such divine terrain, uncluttered and primitive, “of a right should be the property of all people.”
Carhart felt just as strongly in 1921 when posted to the Superior National Forest. As he toured its wet, green expanse, it became obvious what the forest should support and what it should not. “There is one outstanding feature found in the Superior National Forest which is not present in any other nationally owned property,” he noted. “This is a lake type of recreation. The Superior is unquestionably one of the few great canoe countries of the world.” It would ne nonsensical "to make the Superior a foot, horseback, airplane or auto playground for this would mean non-utilization of existing natural advantages.”
Yet despite the Superior’s abundant recreational opportunities, this “National playground of National service” initially went unfunded, Carhart lamented, because “Congress [had] not made any appropriation for recreation in the National Forests.” That lack of allocations would be resolved in the coming years; the multiple-day-long canoeing trips that Carhart anticipated have become an annual rite for thousands.
Carhart’s report is rightly credited with laying the foundation for subsequent recreational planning in the forest. In 1926, for example, Agriculture Secretary William Jardine signed off on the Superior Roadless Area (the forerunner of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area). Its singular purpose was to “conserve the value of the Superior National Forest as a game and fish country and as a national playground offering a virile and wholesome form of recreation off the beaten paths.”
These restrictions have helped it become what Carhart believed it should be, a “magnificent play area.”
Conservationist Sigrid Olson also wrote movingly of the Boundary Waters’ wildness. Years of canoeing its limitless reaches led him to pick up his pen to convey to those who had never plied its cold waters what makes the experience so beguiling. “The movement of a canoe is like a reed in the wind. Silence is part of it, and the sounds of lapping water, bird songs, and wind in the trees,” he wrote in 1956. “It is part of the medium through which it floats, the sky, the water, the shores.” Protecting this silence, and the solitude it promotes, required a fierce defense, which Olson mounted by blocking the noisy intrusion of aircraft over the glittering lakes, shutting off the angry buzz of chainsaws in the deep woods, and protecting the habitat of loon and lynx.
The key question for Olson sixty years ago--and which remains strikingly relevant--was how Americans wanted to experience nature and under what conditions:
"In the face of our burgeoning population and industrial expansion we can draw courage from the knowledge that in the saving of places of natural beauty and wildness we are waging a battle for man’s spirit. No task is more important, for the wilderness we save today will provide moral and spiritual strength and balance in a world of technology and frenzied speed."
By rejecting Twin Metals’ request for a renewal of its mineral lease, the US Forest Service will reaffirm Olson’s and Carhart’s convictions, and its own managerial legacy, that some places are simply too biologically significant, spiritually transcendent, and pristine to mar.