REGIONAL— The U.S. Forest Service has announced that it is cancelling plans to conduct an environmental impact statement, or EIS, on the potential effects of the proposed mineral withdrawal in the …
REGIONAL— The U.S. Forest Service has announced that it is cancelling plans to conduct an environmental impact statement, or EIS, on the potential effects of the proposed mineral withdrawal in the Superior National Forest. Instead, the agency will conduct a less thorough environmental assessment, or EA, which will be completed in less than a year.
The 234,000-acres of federal land under consideration for the withdrawal is currently set aside, or segregated, from the federal mineral leasing program. According to the Forest Service that segregation will end on Jan. 5, 2019, unless the agency finds that the withdrawal itself could cause significant environmental effects.
Superior National Forest Supervisor Connie Cummins said such a finding is unlikely, although she acknowledged that some of the most significant effects could be economic rather than environmental. “I am deeply aware of the controversy regarding socio-economic implications,” said Cummins. “Our specialists are working hard to ensure the EA accurately describes all the facts of the proposal, to aid the Secretary of the Interior in his decision.”
The decision comes despite high public interest in the future of the national forest lands in question, which lie within a primary watershed that flows into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The Forest Service received more than 90,000 comments during a 210-day public comment period on the initial scoping for the study. The Forest Service will provide a much shorter comment period to take public input on the more limited scope of their proposed EA. Comments must be received no later than midnight, Feb. 28, and should be submitted via the project’s website at http://go.usa.gov/xnfQh, by selecting “Comment/Object to Project” link on the right hand side of the page.
The original withdrawal proposal, made in the final weeks of the Obama administration, was a major setback for plans by Chilean mining giant Antofagasta to develop their proposed Twin Metals copper-nickel mine along the Kawishiwi River, near Ely. The company had maintained two federal mineral leases in the area, but the Bureau of Land Management opted not to renew the leases in late 2016. The Trump Interior Department has since changed the department’s position on the mineral leases, and it now appears that Interior officials plan to reissue the leases once the segregation is lifted next January. Even so, the administration would have the option to approve the mineral leases and still withdraw the remaining lands from future mineral leasing. Such a withdrawal could last up to 20 years.
Environmentalists, who had lauded the Forest Service’s earlier proposal to conduct a comprehensive scientific and economic impact study, reacted with disappointment to the latest announcement from the agency.
“There’s no room for shortcuts when it comes to the Boundary Waters,” said Doug Niemala, manager of the Ely-based Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters. “All Americans, no matter how they feel about this issue, deserve the most thorough and rigorous analysis possible to determine the risks of sulfide-ore copper mining near the Boundary Waters.
“While the Forest Service has acknowledged that protecting the wilderness through a land withdrawal has no environmental downsides, the other alternatives being considered— such as converting the headwaters of the Boundary Waters to a sulfide-ore copper mining district— would have catastrophic consequences for one of this nation’s crown jewels."
Meanwhile, Eighth District Congressman Rick Nolan lauded the decision, calling it “sensible and the correct one, based on facts and science.”
“Moreover,” said Nolan, “should the withdrawal fail to receive approval, any proposed mining project for this area of the Superior Natural Forest will still need to go through a rigorous, extensive environmental review process at both the state and federal level.”
In St. Paul, Gov. Mark Dayton took aim at the Trump administration, accusing it of putting Antofagasta’s financial interests ahead of protecting the Boundary Waters. “Incredibly, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management now says that Antofagasta’s leases of federal land are to be automatically renewed, which would mean that the company would control the public's land in perpetuity. I urge the Administration to disclose who persuaded it to steamroll responsible review and protection of this priceless natural resource in favor of copper-nickel mining profits.”