For this month’s Organization of the Month, we head to the ‘Land of Ten Thousand Lakes’ and chat with the folks of Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters (SFBW). Located in Minnesota’s Northwoods the nearly 1.1 million acre Boundary Water Canoe Area is threatened by proposed sulfide-ore copper mining at its headwaters. Follow along to learn more about the Boundary Waters and the work SFBW is doing to protect this beautiful place.
Flylords: I’ve heard a lot about the Boundary Waters over the years, but can you tell our readers about the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA)?
SFBW: The Boundary Waters is a special place, filled with the wonders of the Northwoods and an awe-inspiring landscape shaped by glacial movements millennia ago. At nearly 1.1 million acres, the Boundary Waters spreads across the Northeastern tip of Minnesota. It is a vast boreal forest consisting of interconnected lakes, streams, wetlands and aquifers that provide some of the best fishing and hunting the world has to offer. Hunters and anglers travel to the Boundary Waters for the one-of-a-kind chance to pursue lake trout, walleye, smallmouth bass, northern pike, whitetail deer, ruffed grouse and black bear in a true backcountry Wilderness landscape.
The Boundary Waters was first designated as Wilderness under the Wilderness Act of 1964. In 1978, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area & Wilderness Act expanded the wilderness area to the nearly 1.1 million acres that it is today. The 1978 Act also established a Boundary Waters Canoe Area Mining Protection Area along the access corridors into the Wilderness and banned mineral development within the Wilderness and the Mining Protection Area.
Today the Boundary Waters is the most visited Wilderness in our nation with over 150,000 visitors seeking the amazing backcountry experience that it has to offer. The three million-acre Superior National Forest, which includes the Boundary Waters, contains 20% of all the fresh water in the entire National Forest System at 193 million acres. Downstream from the Boundary Waters are Voyageurs National Park, Rainy Lake, and Lake of the Woods, which provide some of Minnesota’s best fishing and hunting experiences. The Boundary Waters truly is a public lands and waters success story.
Flylords: Minnesota is known for its ten thousand lakes. How many lakes are in the BWCA?
SFBW: The Boundary Waters consists of 1,100 lakes, 2,500+ campsites, and 800 miles of coldwater streams.
Flylords: What’s the backstory behind Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters?
SFBW: Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters was founded by a group of hunters and anglers who work together to conserve the Boundary Waters for future generations. We work with local guides, outfitters and businesses who all know the value of the Boundary Waters to the economy of Northeastern Minnesota and understand the importance of the BWCA to the country.
Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization based in Minnesota and founded in 2015. Our mission is to protect the integrity of the BWCA and its watersheds for huntable and fishable populations of fish and wildlife, now and forever through advocacy and education.
We are working toward permanent protection of the BWCA from proposed copper-nickel mining in its watershed. Proposed mining near the Wilderness could damage the local outdoor recreation economy, dozens of youth camps, downstream fish and wildlife, and the pristine water quality the Boundary Waters is known for. In addition, we do tons of outreach to promote hunting and fishing in the Boundary Waters, promote conservation and stewardship of the area’s natural resources, and offer opportunities for our members to enter to win free trips from local guides and outfitters.
Flylords: Industrial mining and water sources are never a good combination. Is the Boundary Waters Canoe Area different? Tell us about the threats from this mining project.
SFBW: Twin Metals, a wholly owned subsidiary of Chilean mining giant Antofagasta, is working to develop a sulfide-ore copper mine at the headwaters of the Boundary Waters. This type of mining has a terrible track record of polluting nearby water, and anyone who has been to the Boundary Waters knows how interconnected the water is here. A spill, a leak, or any change to water quality or the environment would spread far and wide, and sulfide-ore copper mining always pollutes water.
Flylords: I learned a lot about the BWCA and public lands issues this past fall through Patagonia’s “Public Trust.” Tell us about working with the “Public Trust” team.
SFBW: Working with Jeremy Rubingh, David Byars, Hal Herring and the entire group who made Public Trust was a blast. We met them at the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers Rendezvous barbecue a few years ago, one thing led to the other, and they came to Minnesota to film public lands rallies we helped organize at the Minnesota State Capitol and an awesome trip to the BWCA to see where the proposed Twin Metals mine would be first hand.
We were proud to be part of the project, and hope the film helped bring the case to conserve the Bears Ears, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and the Boundary Waters for our own good, to a national audience. The film shows how the conservation of specific public lands across the country isn’t just up to locals but is collectively a national issue. Protection and access for the people to our own public lands and waters is critical to the long-term protection of these places. It also shows the damage done to American’s trust in the institutions meant to protect our lands, and the clear mandate our elected officials have to back up campaign promises about conservation goals with action.
Flylords: What is SFBW working towards? What’s the end goal?
SFBW: The number one priority is to halt the ongoing development of the proposed sulfide-ore copper mine upstream of the Boundary Waters. We’re asking state and federal agencies to take a “stop and study” approach, rather than evaluate the mine plan currently in front of them. The businesses who depend on the Boundary Waters, and the thousands who go there every year, are urging the government to take a protective approach, rather than proceed with “business as usual” approach on a mine proposed on the South Kawishiwi River, which flows from the mine site directly into the Boundary Waters.
The United States Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management have the discretion to order a 20-year mineral withdrawal within the Superior National Forest, halting the project from further development. To permanently protect the Boundary Waters, however, Congress has to pass legislation that withdraws the same area from hardrock leasing, prospecting and mining for good.
Flylords: What is the impact of outdoor recreation on the Boundary Waters’s surrounding communities?
SFBW: Outdoor recreation is a huge part of a deeply rooted tradition of hunting, fishing, canoeing and camping in MN and the Boundary Waters. Much like Bristol Bay, we have an invaluable resource in the BWCA, and should take whatever action we can to ensure long-term conservation of the area. The Boundary Waters is the Yellowstone of the Midwest and the largest Wilderness north of the Everglades and east of the Rockies.
With over 150,000 annual visitors, the Boundary Waters represents some of America’s most-accessible public lands to visitors, particularly in the midwest. In a day, visitors can drive from Illinois, Michigan, Iowa, Wisconsin, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, and across Minnesota for a true one-of-a-kind backcountry Wilderness experience. Few other backcountry destinations allow for this sort of experience, and the few places we have in America that provide the backdrop for this experience need permanent protection.
Lodges, outfitters, guide services, and Minnesotans all benefit from the clean water in the BWCA and overwhelmingly advocate for their protection at events we organize, facilitate, or partner on. Without a permanent protective order of the BWCA, polluted water and impacts to fish and wildlife from proposed mining could depress business around the Boundary Waters and negatively impact the local economy.
Permanent Boundary Waters protection does not only benefit the immediate BWCA area, but also the entire state of Minnesota and the regional outdoor recreation economy. Our future generations depend on us to protect our wild places. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area is no exception.
Flylords: How is SFBW organizing opposition to the mine?
SFBW: Our guiding motivation is, and has always been, permanent protection of the Boundary Waters from sulfide-ore copper mining through legislation and mineral withdrawal.
Working with Congress to pass a permanent protection bill
Encouraging government agencies to protect the BWCA through a number of actions.
Spreading the word to other hunters and anglers
Developing and broadening a robust hunt/fish coalition that helps to nationalize the issue. I.e with orgs like TRCP, BHA, NWF, and others
Educating hunters and anglers on the issue and the importance of protecting our cherished wild places for future generations.
Flylords: Let’s touch on the fishing. By your account, the BWCA seems like a fishers’ paradise. Tell us about some of the best fishing opportunities?
SFBW: The Boundary Waters offers world-class fishing opportunities every season of the year. The most popular species targeted are lake trout, walleye, smallmouth bass, and northern pike. These four species are known as the “Grand Slam” of BW fishing trips. The clean interconnected water of the Boundary Waters is integral to sustaining the populations of game fish. Acidic changes from toxic pollution would drastically affect the fish and the larger ecosystem.
Flylords: Any developments for the new year?
SFBW: Not yet but we are hopeful for positive conservation wins for the Boundary Waters in 2021, as the Biden Administration works towards rebuilding environmental protections across the nation. Additionally, we will pursue and support the re-introduction of the Boundary Waters Wilderness Protection & Pollution Prevention Act, a bill from Rep. McCollum to permanently protect the BW from sulfide-ore copper mining. Beyond the hunting and angling community, outdoor recreationists and tourists alike have flocked to Northern Minnesota for its solitude and accessibility in 2020. The Boundary Waters represents a much broader value to the people of America than the mineral value Twin Metals would extract.