The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness has inspired awe for generations. Covering 1.1 million acres of spectacular woods and waterways along Minnesota’s border with Ontario, the Boundary Waters has for 50 years been the most-visited Wilderness Area in the United States.
Growing up in Ely, Minnesota in the 1950s and 1960s, I learned from my dad, Bill Rom, and his friends Sigurd Olson, Bud Heinselman, and Bill Magie the truth of Edward Abbey’s famous statement, “The idea of wilderness needs no defense, it only needs defenders.” Those four and many others fought tirelessly to have the Boundary Waters included in the Wilderness Act of 1964 and to thwart subsequent efforts by wilderness opponents to undermine protection for the Boundary Waters.
Now this priceless landscape is jeopardized by a new and dangerous threat – sulfide-ore mining for copper, nickel, and other metals. This risky type of mining has never been permitted in Minnesota. Byproducts of sulfide-ore mining include hazardous pollutants such as sulfuric acid and heavy metals. The proposed Twin Metals mines would lie along the South Kawishiwi River and Birch Lake, directly upstream from the heart of the Wilderness. The flow of pollution from these mines would permanently ruin the Boundary Waters.
I benefited greatly from my dad’s example of fighting to save public lands for future generations, but I benefited even more from his quiet conviction – not common among fathers of daughters in those days – that no worthwhile objective was out of my reach. From becoming a floatplane pilot at 16, to becoming a lawyer, to being elected chair of The Wilderness Society, I felt my dad’s confidence in me.
My dad and other wilderness warriors are with us in spirit now as ordinary people take on the power of multinational mining companies. Ely-area business people, retirees, vacation homeowners, and other lovers of our woods and water are determined to prevent sulfide-ore mining in the watershed of the Boundary Waters.
Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness, based in Ely, is leading a national coalition of organizations and people in the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters. Sulfide-ore mining in the Wilderness watershed would have devastating effects on surface water and groundwater, and would massively disturb forests and wetlands around the periphery of the Wilderness that provide crucial habitat and wildlife corridors.
Such mining would also destroy Ely’s currently sustainable economy. About 100 lodges, resorts, outfitters, and other outdoor businesses and organizations in the Ely area thrive because of the Boundary Waters. Ely’s Main Street businesses profit from purchases by tourists, vacation home owners, new residents, and retirees drawn to the Ely area by clean water and the beautiful forest landscape.
Becky Rom lives near Ely. She is a member of the Governing Council of The Wilderness Society, Vice Chair of Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness, and a leader of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters.