MN Writes Reads

Protecting Wilderness

Lisa Pugh
Lisa Pugh, photo by MLVB Photography

As a professional expedition leader, I have spent the better part of the last decade in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. I have experienced its clean, remote lakes and forests across every Minnesota season, from frozen to mosquito and back to frozen again. I have loved it, I have hated it, and I would never trade it. I certainly would never risk losing it.

I started my expedition career with Voyageur Outward Bound School. The organization introduces teens and adults to the Boundary Waters and facilitates self-discovery through the unmatched challenge, teamwork, and self-reflection opportunities of wilderness exploration.

Imagine billions of stars shining into the eyes of a girl who had never before left her city home. Imagine feeling the empowerment of a combat veteran — who is struggling to transition from military to civilian life — as she successfully navigates a 500-pound sled through a pinball-machine-like portage trail with a team of huskies and fellow service members.

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The Boundary Waters is dear to me for the worlds of possibility that have opened to me and countless students who have ventured there on such personal, profound, and fun-filled journeys.

Being an expedition leader has been a hard career for me to leave. As the threat of copper-nickel mining on the Boundary Waters edge looms, however, I have transitioned to work full-time in science and policy for the non-profit Save the Boundary Waters. According to what I have learned from scientific and economic analysis, all sulfide-ore copper-nickel mines pollute surrounding water.

The Boundary Waters is a vast, interconnected system of waterways, with no capacity to buffer acids, heavy metals, and sulfates — all signatures of copper-nickel mine waste.

Peer-reviewed science published in the “Journal of Hydrology” has shown that pollution from copper-nickel mining upstream of the wilderness would flow into the Boundary Waters. Minnesota’s environmental standards were not designed to regulate this type of mining on the edge of such a sensitive, water-rich environment.

Analysis by a Harvard economist shows that in all but the least likely scenarios, the local economy in 20 years will be worse with a copper-nickel mine near the Boundary Waters than without one, in part due to the impact on the recreation industry.

Having lived and worked in extreme conditions with people of diverse backgrounds and beliefs, I respect the differences of opinion and experience we have as citizens in a democratic country. That said, we need to decide as Minnesotans and U.S. citizens: Is copper-nickel mining right for this unique and vulnerable wilderness? Scientists, economists, and the record of the copper-nickel mining industry tell what we need to know: absolutely not.