Public lands near Minnesota’s border waters are exempt from federal mining leases.

WASHINGTON. After more than a year of assessments and debate, the U.S. Department of the Interior on Thursday announced it was withdrawing more than 225,000 acres of public land near Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness from federal mine lease programs.

Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland signed State Land Order 7917, which protects sections of the Higher National Forest from federal geothermal leases and mining for the next 20 years. The lands to be acquired are located predominantly in the northern part of the Upper National Forest.

The release cites the agency’s concerns about the impact of mining on ecosystem health, tribal rights, and the local recreational economy.

“The Department of the Interior takes seriously our commitment to managing public lands and waters on behalf of all Americans,” Haaland said in a press release. “In an effort to protect this special place for future generations, I made this decision using the best available science and extensive public input.”

A lease suspension of 20 years is the maximum the Home Office can enforce. Only Congress can authorize the permanent removal of federal lands, such as those in the Upper National Forest, from these programs.

225,000 public comments

This decision follows the 2021 Environmental Assessment and a recall statement from the USDA Forest Service. The application received over 225,000 public comments.

The Forest Service has found that the development of copper-nickel ore mining at the Duluth Complex, a major valuable mineral deposit, will have an adverse impact on environmental health, no matter what environmental mitigation techniques are used.

The recall statement cited an increased risk to Native Americans and low-income communities due to acidic mine runoff and stated that unintentional leakage from the mines and their retention ponds could lead to animal deaths and damage soil health.

The Forest Service report added that there were plans to mine the now withdrawn public lands as early as 2006.

“I applaud Minister Holland’s decision to protect the long-term health of the Rainy River watershed, including the irreplaceable wilderness of the Canoe Area in Frontier Waters,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement. “This landscape is an international resource renowned for its many recreational opportunities and provides millions of visitors with an unparalleled wilderness experience.”

Republicans criticize the decision

The U.S. House Natural Resources Committee condemned the new decision on the committee’s Twitter feed. The chairman is Arkansas Republican Bruce Westerman.

“As the Democrats shut down American mines, China is laughing straight into the bank.” tweet said. “We will not stop fighting to gain access to our resources and provide jobs for American workers instead of supporting China’s horrendous child and slave labor practices.”

Rep. Pete Stauber, a Republican whose Minnesota district includes Boundary Waters, also denounced the decision in a statement Thursday, saying the taking of those public lands amounts to “a direct attack on our way of life.”

“We can’t have a renewable energy future without minerals, period — not to mention the need for them for our defense systems, satellites, mobile phones and just about every other cutting edge technology,” Stauber said in a statement.

In contrast, Rep. Betty McCollum, a Democrat from Minnesota, welcomed the decision.

“I applaud the Haaland for this action, which is a huge step in protecting border waters,” McCollum said in a statement. “Unfortunately, this may be overruled by another administration, so I intend to re-introduce the Wildlife Protection and Frontier Waters Pollution Prevention Act in the 118th Congress to continue the work of protecting this national treasure forever.”

According to the USDA, more than 166,000 visitors from around the world come to the 1.1 million acre Frontier Waters each year. It is the only wilderness on the lake in the National Wildlife Conservation System.

Public lands contribute up to $17.4 million annually to the recreation and tourism economy worth more than $540 million in Cook, Lake and St. Louis counties, according to a report released Thursday.

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