The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has re-opened the door to mineral exploration in the Rainy River Watershed, allowing companies to lease minerals in the Superior National Forest.

USDA’s decision received a warm welcome from mining supporters, who have worried the obstacle would stifle Iron Range economic growth. Environmentalists said it will harm the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

“Today’s announcement from the U.S. Department of Agriculture is the right decision for Minnesota’s future and validates the existing environmental review process – which states the proper time to evaluate potential impacts of mining projects is after they have been proposed,” Jobs for Minnesotans said in a news release. 

“This mineral withdrawal would have protected the Rainy River watershed and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness from the threat of sulfide mining. Along with impacting the hundreds of thousands of individuals who visit the Boundary Waters each year, this decision will hurt the thousands of people whose livelihoods and economic wellbeing has been built on a thriving outdoor recreation economy in the region,” countered Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness.

During the last 15 months, the Forest Service accepted public input and reviewed the issue. Based on that examination, the agency cancelled the application to withdraw mineral leases from the watershed for a 20-year period.

“It’s our duty as responsible stewards of our environment to maintain and protect our natural resources.  At the same time, we must put our national forests to work for the taxpayers to support local economies and create jobs,” said Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.  “We can do these two things at once: protect the integrity of the watershed and contribute to economic growth and stronger communities.”

In 2016, the Forest Service segregated 234,000 acres from the federal mineral estate and reviewed environmental information related to the proposed mineral activities. The review included a mineral resources report, a biological and economic impact assessment and potential impacts to water resources, wilderness areas and cultural resources. The agency solicited public feedback at several public engagements but found it did not reveal new scientific information.

“If anyone can access precious minerals safely, or harvest mature timber growth, meeting all required environmental standards, we can,” said Steve Giorgi, executive director of the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools (RAMS). “Today our future looks just a bit brighter.”

In October 2017, Sixth Congressional District Rep. Tom Emmer (R)introduced Minnesota’s Economic Rights (MINER) in the Superior National Forest Act to restore Minnesota's right to explore and, if environmentally appropriate, mine valuable precious metals. The House passed Emmer's MINER Act in November 2017. While visiting Duluth in June, President Donald Trump announced his commitment to ending the two-year study and fully restoring Minnesota's right to explore.

In a prepared statement, the agency said Superior National Forest has been mined for decades and contains numerous iron mines. 

“Minerals produced from lands managed by the Forest Service are important to a variety of applications and other forms of technology, from medical and infrastructure applications to household appliances, smart phones, computers, and cars. Additionally, Boundary Waters is well known for high-quality fishing, wildlife viewing and recreational opportunities. This cancellation balances USDA’s commitment to both economic opportunity and conservation,” the agency said.

The Forest Service has the right to include lease stipulations to protect the integrity of National Forest System lands. It reviews the lessee’s mining plan of operations for mineral development, recommends specific operating requirements and may develop specific operating requirements that the lessee must meet during mineral development. 

“This action upholds what Minnesotans who believe that a mining economy can coexist with a treasured environment have been saying for nearly two years. This is a significant win for our way of life in Minnesota, where we have a long history of balancing these interests. We’re thankful to everyone who has helped us achieve today’s action,” said Jobs for Minnesotans.

 “To all who turned out at the rallies and public hearings, give yourself a pat on the back, you made a difference, your voices were heard. Today our future looks just a bit brighter,” Giorgi said.