Minnesota Boundary Waters: Threats, Polarization, and Amazing Activism

voyagerrouteFor an even wider view:


It’s long been clear to me that unless we humans remember our love for this beautiful planet, we will not be moved to take action to preserve and protect her. Yet personal contact with pristine nature is no guarantee, as shown by what’s been happening in tiny Ely, Minnesota. gateway to the Boundary Waters area.

Walk down Sheridan Street, Ely’s main drag, and you’ll see signs like this one in front yards:

imagesQuite a number of them. You won’t see any signs asking to protect this wilderness. Not one sign like this one.


Not any more. They were all recently stolen in the middle of the night.

Copper-Nickel Mining Divides Ely Residents

However, the store front that houses Sustainable Ely still does sit there, also on Sheridan Street, and its sign has not been stolen. However, as I recall, they told me it sits next to a bar, so who knows what will happen next.

The polarity between those who support and those who oppose the new mining plans for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) could not be more stark. Nor more iconic of the great divide that exists in the U.S. today. Ely, with a population of about 3600, can be viewed as a tiny, potent fractal of the larger order, one that pits the frozen past (iron mining, in this case), and a desire to have mining “jobs” return, no matter what the cost to the wilderness or to this creatively differentiating tourist culture that exists there now, and a future that will either be a further evolution of the remarkably sustainable circular economy beginning to sprout in Ely (not just wilderness outfitters, but tiny manufacturing businesses for clothing, equipment, and canoes; dog sled running, new restaurants, the International Wolf Center, the North American Bear Center; craft shops, art galleries, etc.) or: a return to a dismal monocultural future dominated by a boom-and-bust single corporate industry, mining, in this case, copper, rather than iron, from sulfite ore which, when processed, turns into sulfuric acid, which in turn, inevitably, over time, would contaminate the porous boundary waters region.

What struck me all the while was how the polarization — between those who would support new mining, no matter what the cost, and those who are determined to save the wilderness — is so very strong and unyielding. Moreover, the peculiar characteristics of this polarization are also interesting. Over and over again, I heard that even some businesses in town who benefit from tourism and so support the idea of saving the wilderness, won’t say so publically, lest their neighbors know. And it’s not just that they fear ruining long-standing friendships, there is also a sense that things could turn violent. Because they already have. Stores have been looted, windows smashed in. In some way this town feels like the wild west.

All of which makes the job of those who seek to educate townspeople about the huge difference between iron ore mining and mining for copper from sulfite rock — to get approximately .5% copper from, leaving 95.5% waste — much more difficult.

During our national annual event near Ely, 36 of us were camping at the South Kawishiwi River Campground, and using the Screen Shot 2015-08-28 at 2.53.30 PMbeautiful, sturdy, inclosed log pavilion there built by the CCC in 1933..

Over the course of four days and evenings, we Great Old Broads for Wilderness hailing from states as far east as Maine and New Hampshire and all over the midwest and west, were introduced to the magnificent Boundary Waters area via hiking and canoe and to the current mining controversy by presentations of a number of remarkable local activists. I will focus on three of them in the next three posts: Paul Schurke, Becky Rom, and Steve Roschak.

The passion, creativity, and determination of both these three and many many others — who have done things like paddle a canoe signed by thousands of people all the way from Ely to Washington D.C. — moves me to tears.


The send-off party for the canoe. These same two young people now plan to live for a full year in the Boundary Waters area wilderness to call further attention to the cause of preserving it

BTW: on the final day of our camp-out we heard that the study done by one of the four corporations vying for the mine permits was done with inaccurate data, thus voiding the entire study. This news was the top headline in one of the two (polarized) local papers. YES! The other paper, of course, didn’t mention it.


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0 Responses to Minnesota Boundary Waters: Threats, Polarization, and Amazing Activism

  1. Cnawan Fahey says:

    Great, great, post Ann. Say, if you would, please see my post today about the new woman’s magazine – Invoke: Feminine Wisdom for an Evolving World – they run articles on the whole wide array of women’s concerns, including social and environmental justice – I can see you submitting articles to them, if you’re interested.

    • Thanks for this suggestion, Cnawan. But you know, I’m just so cussedly independent that I don’t want to write for anyone else! However, anyone is welcome to repost my articles. BTW: I just collected all the Minnesota Boundary Waters posts under their own page.

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