The future of the Boundary Waters: “A lot depends on the 2020 elections” – Interview with Steve Piragis

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The outdoor equipment and canoe trip outfitting company Piragis Northwoods, plays a leading role in the campaign to safeguard the Boundary Waters on the Canadian border of Minnesota. Steve Piragis has published the case as an impressive political LT&C-Example where several tourism businesses are engaged to protect the vast wilderness area from pollution through prospected mining activities. Can there be any progress on this crucial march of one of our penguins in times of Trump ruling the United States? How to deal with this question, Peter Prokosch is trying to find out in an interview with Steve Piragis:

Steve, I still remember when we both were sailing with an LT&C-Study tour in Antarctic waters, and you got the news that Donald Trump was elected as president of the United States. You did not anticipate that as good news for the future success of your Boundary Waters campaign. Let me first ask you the question: When and how started it, and what made you and your tourism business engaging in this nature protection campaign?

Well, Peter, we became aware of the possibility of sulfide-ore mining here way back in the 1970s when two Canadian mining companies were engaged in pretty extensive core drilling to assess the resource. That all went away in the 1980s as the price of copper went bust on international markets. With prices rising for metals in the 1990s mining interest was renewed and new miners came into the region. Duluth Metals, now owned exclusively by Antofagasta of Chile took over the federal mining leases then and began extensive exploratory operations. That was the signal that we’d better do something and that we were up against an imminent threat to the watershed of the Boundary Waters. We formed a small group within an existing local environmental group called Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness in 2013. At that time we discovered that the federal minerals lease was about to renew for a final ten year period. If that renewal were to be approved, we would most likely see a mine plan, and the chances of stopping this toxic type of mining would be very difficult. Our group challenged the Interior Department under President Obama to review the contact and notice that renewal was not automatic but up to the discretion of the Secretary of Interior. We requested that the government investigate if this was an appropriate watershed for this type of mining. Under Obama in December of 2016 the leases were denied renewal as we had requested and this triggered a 2 years study of the watershed relative to copper mining which would likely have lead to a 20 year withdrawal of all federal mineral leasing in the watershed, our ultimate goal being permanent withdrawal in the 20 year span by Congressional action.  

Well, Peter, along came the election you and I shared aboard Ortelius in the Southern Ocean and the reversal of all that occurred in our favour under Obama.  

What is the picture today, and what difference made decisions or the policy of the present Trump administration?

Today we are in court challenging the action of the Trump Interior Department and asking that the leases of minerals to the Chilean mining giant be denied as they legally were in 2016. We are a plaintive in the case as our standing in the economy of the Ely area would be negatively impacted by the wrongful decision of the Trump people. That case is pending in Federal Court. Meanwhile, the mining company continues to work on a mine plan and would like to push along to the environmental review phase for a mine. This phase, in general, leads ultimately to a mine. The question if that happens is not if this is a place to mine sulfide ore but how mining can take place under state and federal standards. Standards allow some pollution of metals and other pollutants into the water and air shed. We hope now that the Governor of our state will not allow an environmental review to proceed until the lawsuit is resolved and the two years study asking if this is even a viable option for this watershed. We await his decision, and we await the results of our suit. 

What makes you optimistic that you sometimes will win this case?

Sometimes reason wins out over greed in this country despite long odds. Our economic studies and our science that is peer-reviewed points decisively to the conclusion that our local economy would suffer if mining is allowed. Pollution of this great wilderness would be inevitable. We are on the side of protection for future generations of what is America’s most popular wilderness. We have the evidence to back it up, and we have hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens on our side. Our resolve is unrelenting. A lot depends on the 2020 elections.  

What can others involved in tourism learn from your experiences?

Peter, I think the universal lesson is that citizens have to be involved in national decisions that affect their local areas. It is essential to jump in early before the momentum of big corporations takes over control, and it becomes too late to act. We were fortunate to have local activists with lots of environmental law experience and dynamic leadership. I believe we were also fortunate to have so many folks who know this resource and have experienced the Boundary Waters to call on to act in their states and to provide financial support to the Campaign to Save The Boundary Waters. The keys are: act fast, get the best lawyers you can muster, get supporters motivated in large numbers and never give in to any compromise and never give up.

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