I'm on a rock rise in the middle of one of 1,000 lakes. The breeze is at my back and I'm rolling footage on a canoe that's out of arm's reach, but within earshot. Steve Piragis and Reid Carron are in the canoe that's sliding across calm water. Piragis paddling, Carron casting. I'm pleased with what I see, but I'm concerned about what I'm hearing.
"Copper mines really can't prevent polluting the watershed around them," says Steve Piragis, Piragis Northwoods Company co-owner and canoe outfitter. "They all say they won't and they all pay the fine when they do."
Twin Metals Minnesota, owned by Antofagasta based in Chile, wants to open a copper mine near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The site is outside the wilderness border, but at the top of the watershed in Superior National Forest. If something goes wrong, the acidic waste from mining copper could roll downstream into 1.1 million acres of federally protected woods and water.
"The proposed type of mining has never been done without some type of environmental impact," says Lukas Leaf, Sportsmen for Boundary Waters outreach coordinator. "This is the wrong place for that type of mining because of how sensitive and interconnected the Boundary Waters ecosystem is."
BWCAW garnered wilderness designation in 1964. Minnesota's mining history goes back much farther than that. Not the copper kind, the iron kind. The northern land is known for iron ore and miners are proud of what they exhume for the rest of the world to consume. Mining means opportunity in Minnesota, but Piragis sees his canoe outfitting business as a better opportunity. He's one of 23 outfitters operating out of Ely, the Boundary Waters' western gateway. He's invested in the kind of opportunity created by tourism and recreation.
"Our jobs are more important than mining jobs because they're sustainable into the future," Piragis says. "Mining employs some people, but it doesn't employ them very long. Mining is a boom and bust industry. Always has been. The resource goes away and there's a wasteland left behind."
Those fighting over the mine don't pretend to be friends. I witnessed a heated exchange between opposing sides during a panel discussion at the Outdoor Writers Association of America conference in Duluth a few days before I visited the Boundary Waters. It was like watching the rabid fight over wolves transplanted in Idaho a few decades ago. Attacks were unfiltered and unapologetic.
When Becky Rom, Save the Boundary Waters board vice-chair, rambled off a list of valid reasons for opposing a mine so close to the Boundary Waters, Chuck Novak, the mayor of Ely, Minnesota spit back with, "If that were a book at Barnes & Noble, it would be in the fiction section."
Novak wants the copper mining explored, but at this point, exploration isn't even an option. The U.S. Forest Service started a two-year hold in January while the impact of mining the resource is researched.
If Piragis and those opposing the mine get their way, the two-year hold will turn into 20. The Forest Service is accepting public comments until August 17 on whether a 20-year mining ban should be established for a 234,000-acre buffer around the Boundary Waters.