The words conservation and preservation are sometimes misused and misunderstood when describing the management of precious natural resources. Conservation means wise use, and preservation means no use. Both have their place in trying to maintain a healthy, fully functioning environment for people, plants and animals. Something like a federally endangered plant or animal might appropriately be managed by allowing no use. Things like soil and game species can be safely used without hurting their long-term future or putting humans and their environment in danger. It all depends on how they’re used. In other words, they must be well-managed, with their long-term health in mind. That takes a lot more work and often more expense than the way most of the world’s natural resources have been managed in the past. “Use it till it’s gone, or at least as long as it’s profitable” pretty much describes how resources have been viewed throughout the world’s history.
It’s only been in the last century that the idea of conservation (wise use while protecting future environmental health) began to catch on. The change in thinking was slow to take hold, and it still hasn’t in some circles. The last 50 years have seen a variety of environmental protection laws, but they often came only after lengthy and expensive legal battles. I wrote about one of those long-fought battles a few weeks ago. The controversy over mining copper and nickel in the Superior National Forest of northeast Minnesota flared up again when the U.S. Forest Service reopened a closed mining lease to a Chilean company called Twin Metals.
A 24-month environmental review regarding reopening the mining lease had been agreed to by the U.S. Forest Service, a branch of the Department of Agriculture. Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, recently announced that the study had been cut off at 15 months and also announced that the department has withdrawn a proposed 20-year ban on mining in Superior National Forest. That opens the field to not just the two large mining leases that have been at the center of the controversy for years, but to dozens of others who will now be able to apply. None of the proposals would be allowed inside the 1.1 million acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, but many, if not most, would be within the watershed that feeds into the BWCAW.
History has shown that resources will be used sooner or later as long as there is enough demand to make the use profitable. There is demand for copper and nickel, and jobs would certainly be created for at least the duration of mining. Metal ores are finite resources and won’t last forever. The risk of long-term environmental damage is also higher than in past resource exploitation booms, like timber harvest and iron mining. A recent economic analysis by Harvard University found that reopening mining in northeast Minnesota could hurt the area’s long-term economy; especially the multimillion dollar tourist industry that could last indefinitely if the resource base that supports it is well managed. Rain that has become more acidic in recent decades has already accelerated leaching of toxic mercury from area rocks. That has already led to health warnings on eating fish from some wilderness lakes. The State of Minnesota will have some review over mining’s future, but much of it is likely to take place on federal lands.
Perhaps mining sulfide metal ores with their highly acidic leftovers can be done in an environmentally acceptable way, but it’s never been done anywhere in the world so far. It appears that the fight is about to shift from preservation to conservation. The question will no longer be about whether or not to mine, but about how the mining will be done. Perhaps enough new technologies can be brought to bear to insure the long-term safety and health of the region and make sulfide ore mining less damaging than it’s ever been. Even that will likely require hard and expensive fights, because each long-term safety consideration will increase the cost of their product and eat into potential profits for the mining companies. Perhaps true conservation (wise use without long-term damage) can still carry the day and my grandkids can safely enjoy the Boundary Waters as I have.
Steve Lekwa is a former director of Story County Conservation.