A new environmental review sets the stage for more drilling for precious metals in northeastern Minnesota.
The Superior National Forest has approved a group of 29 applications to prospect for copper and nickel south of Ely, where a lot of mining exploration is already going on.
The Forest Service report stresses that the new permits are only for exploration.
"If there is an interest in any of the companies to continue and work towards actual mining, i.e. mineral development, that's another stage of permitting and analysis," said U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Kris Reichenbach.
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But Betsy Daub, policy director for the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, is not reassured.
"This is opening the door for intensive mineral exploration and development for the next 20 to 30 years," she said. "This is setting the stage."
The permits cover almost 39,000 acres, but the Forest Service says only about 1,000 acres will be disturbed by the drilling. More than 100 miles of temporary roads would be built.
U.S. Forest Service administrators say sound from the drilling will likely be heard near the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, but it won't penetrate very far.
Each drill site typically operates around the clock for about three weeks.