Northeastern Minnesota is home to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), a network of thousands of pristine lakes that have been federally protected since 1968. The protections are so strong that you can’t build a road inside the 1 million acres of wilderness. You also can’t fly a plane over it without federal approval and you can’t drive a boat with a motor. The experience of being in a place without a human footprint draws more than 200,000 visitors a year to the region.
But just outside of this wilderness area is one of the largest untapped sources of copper in the world. A 2018 decision by the Trump administration to remove a ban on mineral extraction within the Superior National Forest paved the way for a Chilean copper mining company (whose CEO is also Ivanka Trump’s landlord) to open a mine near the BWCAW.
The policy shift has mired the region in the age-old jobs vs environment debate. On the one hand, the prospect of well-paying mining jobs for this economically depressed region is alluring. But if the mine opens it could threaten another industry that depends on the wilderness staying intact: recreation and tourism.
The Trump administration’s decision to remove protections from the Superior National Forest is part of a broader policy shift away from conservation and in favor of extractive industries. The fear for some in Minnesota is that this copper mine will leave the same legacy of pollution as countless others have since the Gold Rush era in the West. Heavy metal mining is one of the most toxic extractive industries in the US because it leaches heavy metals into groundwater.
But copper presents a perplexing paradox: It’s in nearly every part of our contemporary lives. It’s the wiring in our phones, and it’s in the pipes of our buildings. As we transition to greener technology, we will need it even more: electric cars, for example, require nine times more copper than gas-burning vehicles. We need copper for solar panels and wind turbines, too.
There is no alternative to the conductive abilities of copper, therefore there isn’t the same conversation about a copperless future as there is for fossil fuels. So the question looms: If we don’t mine for copper near the BWCAW — where will we get it?