Outdoor recreation businesses file lawsuit to protect the Boundary Waters

Plaintiffs cite irreparable harm to a vital economic driver and negative financial consequences for local businesses

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Today, nine local businesses that rely on the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness to support jobs and that contribute to a sustainable economy in northeastern Minnesota filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of the Interior challenging the reinstatement of two long-expired mineral leases on Superior National Forest lands near the edge of the Boundary Waters, America’s most visited Wilderness Area. The lawsuit challenges that the Department of the Interior’s unlawful actions pose an immediate threat to small businesses, public health, jobs, clean water, wildlife, and the sporting and outdoor economy of Minnesota.

The lawsuit challenges the Department of the Interior’s decision to abandon longstanding mineral leasing policy – established with strong bipartisan support—to distort  the plain language of the expired leases to benefit a Chilean-owned mining company with a history of pollution. The unlawful reinstatement also ignored the U.S. Forest Service’s decision to withhold consent to the reinstated mineral leases because of the likelihood of harm to the water quality of the Boundary Waters and the inability to mitigate  Acid-Mine Drainage (AMD) in the vast interconnected rivers, lakes and streams of the BWCA.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit include Voyageur Outward Bound School, Piragis Northwoods Company, Ely Outfitting Company, Hungry Jack Outfitters, Sawbill Outfitters, River Point Resort and Outfitting Company, Northstar Canoe, Wenonah Canoe, and Women’s Wilderness Discovery.  A locally based conservation group, Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness, is also a plaintiff.

“My clients would be repelled by water and noise pollution and other harm to the Boundary Waters,” said Steve Piragis, owner of Piragis Northwoods Company.  “They will stop using substantial areas of the Boundary Waters, including important entry points and major canoe routes. Others will cease to visit at all because it will no longer be the place they love and remember. It would not take long for the recreational economy we have worked so hard to develop for many decades in Ely to be severely affected. My business will suffer.”

Sulfide-ore copper mining at the edge of the  Boundary Waters, and within its watershed, will devastate northeastern Minnesota’s outdoor recreation economy. According to the Outdoor Industry Association, Minnesota’s outdoor recreation economy generates annually $16.7 billion in consumer spending, $4.5 billion per year in wages and salaries, and $1.4 billion in state and local tax revenue, and it supports 140,000 direct jobs.  

The Boundary Waters is not only home to fish and abundant wildlife in its 1.1 million acres of interconnected waterways and boreal forests—it’s also Minnesota’s outdoor recreation destination for paddlers, hunters, anglers, canoeists, adventurers, artists, and outdoor enthusiasts from around the country. Minnesota’s Governor Mark Dayton, other elected officials, four Minnesota and First Nation Chippewa tribes, thousands of medical professionals, more than 50 scientists, and 70% of Minnesotans oppose sulfide-ore copper mining in the watershed of the Boundary Waters.

“Voyageur Outward Bound School has been serving the Outward Bound mission—changing lives through challenge and discovery— in the Boundary Waters for more than fifty years,” said Jack Lee, Executive Director of Voyageur Outward Bound School. “Our interests as an organization are inextricably tied to the health and preservation of the Boundary Waters and maintaining its wilderness character. The potential pollution and destruction to the Boundary Waters by adjacent mining operations on leased Superior National Forest lands present what we have concluded is a lethal and unacceptable risk to our business and mission of changing lives through challenge and discovery.”

The decision made on May 2, 2018  by the Department of the Interior unlawfully granted rights to a foreign-owned mining company without consideration of environmental damage to the water, air and land of the Superior National Forest and the Boundary Waters, or of the economic risk to the region and State, including losses for  hundreds of small businesses and thousands of jobs that rely on the Boundary Waters.

The lease reinstatement also ignores the U.S. Forest Service’s science-based decision to withhold its consent to the leases. In 2016, at the end of a three-year review and a public comment period that included two heavily-attended public meetings, the Forest Service concluded that the development of a copper mine within the Boundary Waters watershed risked serious and irreparable harm to this unique and  iconic Wilderness area.

The Forest Service is now conducting a two-year study of its proposal to ban sulfide-ore copper mining  on 234,328 acres of Superior National Forest lands in the watershed of the Boundary Waters for twenty years—lands that include the areas covered by the two reinstated mineral leases. Reinstatement of leases occurred in the middle of the study that will document the negative environmental, economic, and social impacts of copper mining near the Boundary Waters.

More than 350 businesses, sportsmen groups, and conservation groups stand together to protect the Boundary Waters from nearby sulfide-ore copper mining.