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How the Save the Boundary Waters movement brought Minnesota mining into the national spotlight

Thousands of acres in the Boundary Waters are now protected
Thousands of acres in the Boundary Waters are now protected 05:33

ELY, Minn. — What started with a small group of people is having a big impact on protecting the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Earlier this year, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland imposed a 20-year federal ban on copper nickel mining in the Superior National Forest, the headwaters to the BWCA.

It could be considered a controversial action in a mining state.

RELATED: Federal judge deals another serious blow to proposed copper-nickel mine on edge Minnesota wilderness

The decision made 225,000 acres off limits, ensuring a Chilean mining company could not move forward with its proposed Twin Metals mine.

It's the most significant conservation measure to protect the area in more than four decades.

Behind the push for protection started with that small group of people, whose efforts grew into a national movement to Save the Boundary Waters.

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness lies in the northern part of the Superior National Forest. With 1,200 miles of canoe routes. You won't hear the sounds of cars there. Instead, it's the call of the wild, home to bald eagles and loons.

The headwaters of the BWCA is near Ely, where a decade ago the group started talking about the threat of copper-nickel mining there.

"This was really a battle to protect one of the most important pieces of public land in the country," Reid Carron said.

"What is it we could do to change the direction our region was heading," Becky Rom, National Chair, Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters said.

Rom grew up in Ely, living above her dad's canoe trip outfitting business. She and Reid Carron moved back in retirement. And with collective concern joined with Paul and Sue Schurke.

"Learned early on, as well, the responsibility for enjoying a place this beautiful was to protect it and ensure it was protected forever for everyone," Paul Schurke said.

Schurke is an artic adventurer and owns a dogsled lodge. Sue started an outdoor apparel line.

Steve and Nancy Piragis arrived in the 70s to do research on mining for the EPA. They stayed and are the owners of an outdoor outfitting company.

"This was our issue, our time to step up," Steve Piragis said.

They strongly opposed federal mine leases near the BWCA. Copper-Nickel mining hasn't been done in the state so they got to work learning about how it worked and the potential for pollution.

"It would be a wholesale damage to the entire watershed, to the entire wilderness area, and a path of pollution that would go from here northwards 1,200 miles to the Artic Ocean," Paul Schurke said.

They took their fight to the nation's capitol.  

"We went to Washington, we had something to talk about," Steve Piragis said.

"Us first explaining this place, what the canoe country was about, why it was so special, why it was so valuable and why it was so vulnerable," Rom said.

Other like-minded people in town soon joined the movement and invested in the future of the BWCA.

"The amount of research got out to decision makers and explained the threat," business owner Jason Zabokrtsky said.

"We want more and more people to have these experiences," Lucy Soderstrom, Executive Director of the Ely Folk School, said.

Adventurers Amy and Dave Freeman paddled 2,000 miles from Ely to Washington D.C.

"I think we realized we had this unique skillset where we could paddle and portage and dogsled. Use our skills and combine that with sharing the science and the importance of protecting the place," Dave Freeman said.

The 100-day trek garnered attention.

"More people were telling us their stories and joining in with the cause, was very encouraging," Amy Freeman said.

The momentum continued with mailers, and as support swelled so did donations and volunteers.

They made those monthly trips to meet with lawmakers.

"Now it's hundreds of thousands of people across the country and across the world who've been awakened both to the beauty of the place and the threat that we're up against," Paul Schurke said.

But the push for protection hasn't been a straight line. There have been lawsuits and strong opposition to their movement, and a community with a history of mining divided.

MORE: Boundary Waters 2nd spot nationwide to be given "Wilderness Quiet Park" status

"We have a lot of people that don't like us in Ely. They think the mining company is a panacea," Steve Piragis said.

"The polarity is still very strong in this town," Paul Schurke said.

"I just feel, they feel it can be done safely. And we feel it can't be done safely," Sue Schurke said.

For now, this group carries the momentum.

"We are up against professional lobbyists as regular people, as citizens who are advocating for good public policy," Rom said.

The group achieved the 20-year ban on mining earlier this year, this most significant accomplishment to date.

Still they're working toward permanent protection.

"We need legislation so it can't be undone by an administration," Carron said.

"We still have a long way to go. I think that's what we think about more than what we've accomplished," Steve Piragis said.

Congresswoman Betty McCollum has introduced a bill to permanently protect the area, saying "some places are simply too precious to mine."

You can read McCollum's statement here.

Congressman Pete Stauber is trying to reverse what he calls a "misguided and harmful ban" saying the "mineral withdrawal has nothing to do with protecting the BWCA."

"The Biden Administration's mineral withdrawal has NOTHING to do with protecting the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA). The BWCA Act, which was established in 1978, already prevents mining in the BWCA and its surrounding buffer zone. However, since the Biden Administration cannot reasonably or scientifically justify their decision to stop good mining projects here in Minnesota, they continue to resort to outright lies about needing to protect the BWCA. The fact is that the Biden Administration's mining policy is anywhere but America, any worker but American. Their anti-mining policies cannot be allowed to continue as we are far too reliant on Communist China and Russia for the mineral resources necessary to meet our national and economic security needs. That's why I introduced legislation to nullify this mineral withdrawal. Under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, Congress can override an administrative withdrawal over 5,000 acres. Secretary Haaland's 225,504 acre ban on mining in the Superior National Forest qualifies as a trigger to this Congressional authority laid out in statute. I look forward to seeing Congress exercise its authority to roll back this misguided and harmful ban and secure our domestic mineral supply chains. It is well past time for elected officials, not appointed bureaucrats, to dictate how and when America's abundant resources and public lands are utilized."

Twin Metals shared this statement:

Twin Metals Minnesota is deeply disappointed and stunned that the federal government has chosen to enact a 20-year moratorium on mining across a quarter million acres of land in northeast Minnesota. This region sits on top of one of the world's largest deposits of critical minerals that are vital in meeting our nation's goals to transition to a clean energy future, to create American jobs, to strengthen our national security and to bolster domestic supply chains. We believe our project plays a critical role in addressing all of these priorities, and we remain committed to enforcing Twin Metals' rights.

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