The U.S. Forest Service has officially begun a process that could lead to a 20-year ban on new copper-nickel mines in the watershed of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.
The move would be a major victory for environmental groups that have fought to keep new mines away from the crown jewel of Minnesota wilderness, but a blow to communities in northeast Minnesota hungry for the hundreds of new jobs mining could bring.
The action by the Forest Service opens up a 90-day comment period on the proposed "withdrawal of federal minerals" that would ban new mineral development over about 230,000 acres in the Rainy River watershed, which flows into the Boundary Waters, Voyageurs National Park and Quetico Provincial Park.
The Forest Service will then complete an environmental impact statement of the proposed mineral withdrawal, a process that's expected to last two years. No new mining activity in the region will be allowed while the study is underway.
The Forest Service first called for the ban last month at the same time it decided against renewing the expired mineral leases of Twin Metals, a company that has been exploring near Ely to build a potential new underground copper-nickel mine.
Feds halt Twin Metals plan for Minn. copper mine near Boundary Waters
In proposing the moratorium, the Forest Service wrote that future potential mines in the Boundary Waters watershed "could lead to irreversible impacts upon natural resources," and also expressed concern over "the perpetual treatment of water discharge" that "would likely be required" at potential future mines.
"Sulfide-ore copper mining near the Boundary Waters is a grave threat," said Becky Rom, national chair of Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, which has pushed for the federal mining ban near the wilderness area.
The scoping period will identify what issues the Forest Service should examine in its preparation of an environmental impact statement, Rom said.
The environmental review will then guide the decision by the next Interior Secretary on whether to approve the U.S. Forest Service's application for a 20-year withdrawal.
In a statement, Twin Metals Minnesota said the government's proposed mining moratorium in the BWCA watershed "will have a devastating impact on the region's economy, eliminating the promise of thousands of good-paying jobs and billions of dollars in local investment."
The company also argues the proposal runs counter to the Superior National Forest's long-running policy to allow mine development outside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.
"Make no mistake, this is an anti-mining tactic and waste of taxpayer dollars," said DFL Rep. Rick Nolan, who represents the 8th District. "Without being able to assess an actual project, the Forest Service's plan is harmful to the environmental review process and should be rejected by new U.S. Department of Agriculture leadership."
The U.S. Forest Service will hold a public meeting in Duluth on March 16 to gather public comments on the proposed mineral withdrawal.
In a statement the agency also said it will hold additional meetings in "various regions of the state" during the 90-day period.