Trump administration officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced in a quietly released statement on Thursday that 234,000 acres of land near a popular Minnesota wilderness area will officially open to mining.
“Interested companies now may soon be able to lease minerals in the watershed in the Superior National Forest,” the USDA said in its announcement, noting that it had removed a “major obstacle” to mining in Minnesota’s Rainy River Watershed. The watershed sits next to the popular Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in the northeastern part of the state.
Critics, however, say this decision ignores “science and facts” because the department did not conduct an adequate study into the environmental, social, and economic impacts that may occur as a result of lifting a temporary suspension on mining in the area.
The Boundary Waters area is a hugely popular wilderness area with over 1,000 lakes, providing more than 1,000 miles of canoe routes and numerous hiking trails. According to a group of environmental organizations that are currently suing Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke over the issue, pollution from sulfide-ore copper mining could harm water quality and the region’s ecology. Impacts on tourism, a key economic driver for the area, would also be a risk, they argue.
The news comes after President Donald Trump said during a June rally in Duluth, Minnesota that he wanted to keep large portions of land within the state’s Superior National Forest — where the Boundary Waters recreation area is located — open to mining. These areas were set to be banned to industry activities under the Obama administration.
Trump’s statement followed a decision issued by the Interior Department in May to reinstate two expired federal mineral leases held by Twin Metals Minnesota for sulfide-ore copper mining.
The foreign-owned company is pursuing a copper-nickel project in the area and stands to benefit from the administration’s promise to reverse an Obama-era decision restricting industrial access from hundreds of thousands of acres in the national forest. The company’s owner also happens to be leasing a house to Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner in Washington, D.C.’s Kalorama neighborhood.
When testifying last year before the House Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee about the potential of opening up the watershed to mining, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue committed the department to conducting a two-year environmental review. “I’m not smart enough to know what to do without the facts base and the sound science and we are absolutely allowing that to proceed,” he said at the time.
Perdue is now being accused of breaking this promise. In a statement, Congresswoman and lead Democrat on the subcommittee, Betty McCollum (D-MN), called the decision to abandon the mining withdrawal study “a politically-motivated and callous betrayal of their responsibility to care for our public lands.”
“It completely disregards the scientific evidence that sulfide-ore mining in the watershed will cause irreparable harm to the pristine wilderness of the Boundary Waters,” McCollum said. “The Trump Administration is eliminating sound science from the equation in order to ram through a destructive giveaway to their friends at a foreign-owned mining corporation.”
In its statement released Thursday, USDA said it conducted a review over the past 15 months — based on this, it decided to revoke the U.S. Forest Service’s request to restrict mining in the area. The Forest Service had originally denied mineral leases to Twin Metals Minnesota in 2016 due to the risks being too high.
But in a statement, Alex Falconer, executive director of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, countered that “the Trump administration broke its word to us, to Congress, and to the American people when it said it would finish the environmental assessment.”
The campaign also states that USDA’s decision “disregards” the views of more than 180,000 people who submitted public comments to the U.S. Forest Service’s first comment period for its study — 98 percent of which supported the need to protect the watershed.
In a comment via email to ThinkProgress, a USDA spokesperson explained that its review looked at environmental, scientific, and technical information along with providing opportunities for public engagement.
“Based on what we learned over those 15 months, we determined there was not any need to complete the process on an environmental assessment,” the spokesperson said. “In short, the Forest Service met its commitment to complete a science-based analysis that involved the public.”
The USDA spokesperson also noted that any future mineral lease that might be issued must still be approved by the Forest Service.
Opening up more land to resource extraction has been a top priority under the Trump administration. A leaked document last year showed that coal, oil, and natural gas extraction from public lands would be a focus for the Bureau of Land Management, a clear reversal from the previous administration.