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Local View: Already determined: Mineral exploration won't harm BWCAW

I write in response to the Nov. 4 "Local View" column by Tom Tidwell, former U.S. Forest Service chief. The commentary was headlined, "Industrial mining must be kept away from the Boundary Waters."

Tidwell wrote: "Because of the obvious risk to a national treasure, in my position as chief of the U.S. Forest Service, I initiated a review of copper mining in the area in 2014. The process included a public comment period, two public hearings, and careful scientific assessment of the impact sulfide-ore mining could have on the Boundary Waters watershed. ... In 2016, after thorough consideration of the information gained in the review process, on behalf of the Forest Service, I denied consent for the renewal of mineral leases to Twin Metals and asked the secretary of the Interior to withdraw from the leasing program for 20 years the federal mineral rights in the Boundary Waters watershed. ... On Sept. 6, the Trump administration canceled the deeper study on the need for a 20-year ban on mining activity in the watershed."

Tidwell served as chief of the Forest Service from 2009 to 2017. His narrative regarding the reasoning behind the Obama administration's refusal to extend Twin Metals' federal mineral leases and their reinstatement by the Trump administration was incomplete and inaccurate, in my view, and seemed designed to leave the reader with the impression the Trump administration wrongfully acted when it reinstated the leases and rescinded the withdrawal of mineral rights in the Superior National Forest. Tidwell ignored and failed to present facts essential to an understanding of why the administration of President Donald Trump acted as it did.

In 2006, in Duluth, Forest Supervisor James Sanders briefed mining company representatives seeking permits to explore in the Superior National Forest, telling them the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy had told him that if the Forest Service issued prospecting permits without preparing an environmental impact statement, the Center for Environmental Advocacy intended to file a lawsuit. The Forest Service then imposed a moratorium on Superior National Forest lands and began preparing an environmental impact statement.

In 2012, six years after the moratorium was imposed, the Forest Service published a final impact statement finding no significant impacts. The massive study consisted of 862 pages, not including thousands of pages of work papers and supporting documents. A Record of Decision was issued, finding that mineral leasing and exploration could resume pursuant to conditions and stipulations within the environmental impact statement. Altogether, 29 prospecting permits were issued to Twin Metals Minnesota, Duluth Metals, and others. By that time Tidwell already had served as Forest Service chief for three years.

In 2014, two years after the publication of the 2012 study, Tidwell initiated a review of copper mining in the Superior National Forest: "The process included a public-comment period, two public hearings, and careful scientific assessment of the impact sulfide-ore mining could have on the Boundary Waters watershed," Tidwell wrote in his Nov. 4 commentary.

In December 2016, Tidwell wrote Bureau of Land Management Director Neil Kornze: "Based on (the study), I find unacceptable the inherent potential risk that development of a regionally untested copper-nickel sulfide ore mine within the same watershed as the BWCAW might cause serious and irreplaceable harm. ... Therefore, the (U.S. Forest Service) does not consent to (the) renewal of (Twin Metals') Preference Right leases."

In May of this year, the Trump administration reinstated Twin Metals' leases and rescinded the withdrawal of mineral rights on 234,000 acres in the Superior National Forest. Why? Because there was no need for the study initiated by Tidwell in 2014. The 2012 Record of Decision was irrefutable and clear. Exploratory activities can be conducted without causing harm to the environment, as the Record of Decision indicated. Exploration and mining are permitted commercial activities within the Superior National Forest. When Twin Metals defines its project, it will then be required to prepare all documents required by the National Environmental Policy Act.

The decision by the Obama administration in 2014 to conduct yet another study was a tactic employed to delay and circumvent the National Environmental Policy Act and preemptively quash the development of a Twin Metals' project.

The same tactics were employed by the Obama administration to delay the proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska. That project was delayed until the developers brought an action in federal court. In May 2017, that court ruled that pursuant to the agreement the developer reached with the Environmental Protection Agency, Pebble Mine could proceed with its studies. The agreement will not guarantee or prejudge a particular outcome but will provide Pebble a fair process for its permit application.

The decision by the federal court in the Pebble Mine case likely entered into the decision by the Trump administration to allow Twin Metals to continue its pre-feasibility studies.

Tidwell now appears to be ignoring the actions and findings of the agency he headed. He had to have known of the Record of Decision finding no significant impacts, published by his own agency in 2012. He had to know of the ruling that prospecting permits can be issued and exploration activities can be conducted in the Superior National Forest without causing harm to the environment.

Gerald M. Tyler of Ely is chairman of the nonprofit Up North Jobs (upnorthjobs.org), which advocates for economic development, job growth, and natural resources-based industries like mining and forest products.