Congressmen Rick Nolan and Tom Emmer, among others, have made various claims recently suggesting that the 1978 Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act opened the Superior National Forest outside the BWCAW in northern Minnesota to mining. Some variations of this story even talk about a "secret dea" or a "nod and a handshake."
These fictitious claims are usually made to support the proposed PolyMet mine or Twin Metals mineral exploration on the doorstep of the BWCAW. Both pose potentially disastrous environmental impacts, not only for the BWCAW but for the St. Louis River watershed as well.
As co-author of the definitive history of the 1978 BWCAW Act, "Troubled Waters," I can say that no such deal occurred. I say this not only based on my own involvement in the process and my direct contact with the involved members of Congress — including my friend Rep. Nolan — but also upon my research of:
All BWCAW bills in Congress from 1975-1978, including those by Congressman Jim Oberstar, who strongly opposed the wilderness legislation.
All Congressional Record debates.
Transcripts of BWCAW hearings in Washington.
All House and Senate committee reports.
The final conference committee report.
The published legislative history of the 1978 act.
All Congressional Record statements not included in the published legislative history.
In addition to these official documents, I reviewed every BWCAW article from 1978 in the Ely Echo, which strongly opposed the wilderness legislation. If such a deal occurred, the Echo would have reported it. As with the congressional documents, the Echo reported no mining deal. It was never reported anywhere because it never occurred.
The 1978 law did include provisions that intensified forest management on the Superior National Forest outside of the BWCAW. But forest management and mining are not the same thing, and the law included nothing promoting or promising mining on the rest of the Superior.
What I can report about mining during those congressional debates was the nearly universal concern to protect the Boundary Waters from the impacts of mining. Even Rep. Oberstar recognized the hazards of sulfide-ore mining, which poses hundreds, if not thousands, of years of toxic runoff to the waters of the BWCAW. Rep. Oberstar indeed spoke many times during the committee mark-ups and floor debates about the need to protect the Boundary Waters itself from mining.
This is the real promise of the Boundary Waters law, not the version being promoted by Reps. Nolan and Emmer. The real promise of the BWCAW Act, from its own language, is to "maintain high water quality in such areas;" to "provide for the protection and management of the fish and wildlife in the wilderness, so as to enhance public enjoyment and appreciation of the unique biotic resources of the region;" to "protect and enhance the natural values and environmental quality of the lakes, streams, shorelines and associated forest areas of the wilderness;" and to "minimize to the maximum extent possible, the environmental impacts associated with mineral development affecting such areas."
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is a wildland resource of immense value to the nation and the world. Though parts were damaged in the past, it still retains a wilderness character unmatched anywhere else in the National Wilderness Preservation System, with lakes so clean one can drink right from them and where visitors can thrill to the evocative call of loons on a starlit night and experience the great silences and solitude that are increasingly rare in our frantic world.
This is the true promise of the Boundary Waters: not the imaginary promise of mining and its attendant pollution, as promoted by Nolan, Emmer, and others, but a promise from past generations to future ones to pass along unimpaired this hauntingly beautiful wilderness gem with its sparkling clear waters far into the future.
Rather than throw away this hope for a relatively few mining jobs and its toxic pollution, we should instead work together to fulfill the true promise of clean water and a protected Boundary Waters.
Kevin Proescholdt of Minneapolis is the conservation director for Wilderness Watch, a national wilderness conservation organization. He has written widely on Wilderness, including Troubled Waters: The Fight for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (1995) and Glimpses of Wilderness (2015).