The U.S. Department of the Interior will not allow mining in two areas near the Boundary Waters Wilderness Area in northern Minnesota, the department announced Wednesday.
The ruling is a reversal of a Trump-era legal opinion, giving conservation advocates hope that nearly a quarter of a million acres bordering the wilderness that includes mining areas could also be protected from the development.
Twin Metals Minnesota, the company that held the mining leases, pledged to fight the decision.
Congressional Republicans, including local U.S. House member Pete Stauber, blasted it as hurting the local economy.
Democrats and environmental groups hailed the move as protecting important recreational and wilderness space.
Ann Marie Bledsoe Downes, the senior deputy interior attorney, wrote in a legal memorandum to Secretary Deb Haaland on Tuesday that leases to Twin Metals to extract copper, nickel, cobalt and other minerals in the Upper National Forest were incorrectly reinstated in 2019. The U.S. Forest Service never signed the lease renewal, Bledsoe Downes wrote.
“We need to be consistent in how we apply rental terms to ensure that no tenant gets special treatment,” Haaland said in a press release Wednesday. “After careful legal review, we found that the leases had been improperly renewed in violation of applicable laws and regulations, and we are taking steps to cancel them.”
In a press release, Twin Metals described the decision as a politically – rather than legally – motivated move that was “disappointing, but not surprising.” The statement said the company expects to win an effort to reverse the decision once again.
“We will challenge this attempt to stop our project and defend our existing valid mineral rights,” the company statement read. “It’s not about rights; it is a political action to stop the Twin Metals project without conducting the legally mandated environmental review.
Proposed rule for new leases
President Joe Biden’s administration is also considering a rule that would ban new mining leases in 225,000 acres of Upper National Forest for 20 years, including areas covered by the leases. Public comments on this proposal closed last week.
Wednesday’s announcement of the lease decision encouraged environmental groups who have argued for a more permanent ban on mining in the area.
“This is hopefully a preview of the kind of protection we can expect for the future of boundary waters,” said Ellen Montgomery, director of public lands at advocacy group Environment America.
Interior originally granted the mining leases in 1966 and renewed the leases twice. Twin Metals and the former claim holders had produced no ore on the claims when the second renewal expired in 2016.
Under President Barack Obama, the Department of the Interior refused to renew the leases a third time after the Forest Service objected to the company’s request.
The rule proposed by the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service would establish more durable protection than the advice of counsel.
“If they establish this 20-year protection with an outpouring of support from the American public, future administrations will have to think twice about rolling this back,” Montgomery said.
Stauber Blast Administration
Stauber, whose Iron Range district of Minnesota includes all of the Upper National Forest and boundary waters, lambasted the decision in a statement Wednesday, saying it would exclude domestic mineral producers in favor of foreign sources with worse environmental and labor standards.
“The Biden administration has no plan for mining independence,” he said. “Instead, this administration has decided to leave the American blue-collar workers behind and give in to pressure from radicals who prefer to rely on opposing foreign nations for these minerals.”
Stauber, the senior Republican on the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, is a frequent critic of Biden administration policy.
U.S. Representative Betty McCollum, a Democrat from Saint Paul who is a member of the House Natural Resources Committee and former chair of the Interior and Environmental Spending Committee, welcomed the decision in a statement.
“Boundary waters are a national treasure that belongs to all Americans, and I am absolutely committed to ensuring that its watershed is permanently protected,” she said. “Some places are just too special to tap into, and it is our duty to ensure that these unique and precious lands and waters remain untouched for generations to come.”
Speaking to reporters on a video call, McCollum said she was celebrating on Wednesday, but would soon return to pushing for permanent protections.
The House Natural Resources Committee approved a McCollum bill in 2020 that would have permanently protected the area, but the measure never received a floor vote.
The chair of that committee, Arizona Democrat Raúl Grijalva, also applauded the decision.
“Putting this type of mining right next to boundary waters would have been an environmental disaster,” he said. “I will continue to work with my colleagues to ensure that the boundary waters are permanently protected so that future generations of Americans can enjoy this pristine region in the same way.”