The Great Minnesota Divide: Can a Solution to Address the Urban/Rural Split Over Copper-Nickel Mining Come from Conservation Efforts Abroad?

Allie Jo Mitchell, MJLST Staffer

Two different companies are attempting to undertake copper-nickel mining projects in the Superior National Forest on watersheds that feed Lake Superior and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (the nation’s most popular national wilderness area). Copper-nickel mining would be new to the Iron Range, a region in Northeastern Minnesota that has long been mined for taconite, or iron ore. Support or opposition over copper-nickel sulfide mining in Minnesota tends to trend along the urban-rural divide.

For instance, a survey conducted by a pro-mining group found that 57% of voters in the Iron Range, support copper-nickel mining. Compare this with a poll paid for by Save the Boundary Waters that showed statewide 70% of Minnesota voters opposed this new type of mining in the state. This urban-rural divide is not an unheard of phenomenon. The New York Times published an in depth article in 2017 exploring the rift between the “working class” and “progressive activists” as played out in the fight over these new mining proposals in Northern Minnesota.

Both sides of the argument tend to paint in broad brush strokes. Advocates of the mines want the freedom to earn a steady income in a region where their family has– often– been living for generations. They see new mining projects as a way to provide economic development and stability to a region reeling from decades of job losses and a shrinking population. They also believe copper-nickel mining can be done without jeopardizing the environment. However, Minnesota’s regulations have not been updated since the 1990s and are not adequately adapted for this new type of mining. Furthermore, copper-nickel sulfide mines have been the cause of devastating environmental disasters in British Columbia and Chile.

Opponents, on the other hand, believe that the BWCA watershed, Lake Superior, and Superior National Forest contain some of Minnesota’s most pristine waters and wild areas. They fear that the destructive impacts of copper-nickel mining could destroy some of Minnesota’s greatest treasures. Opponents also contend that ecotourism and a growing market for outdoor recreation can revitalize the slumped region and replace an economy centered around mining. Despite these claims, ecotourism jobs tend to be seasonal and are unlikely to replace the high-wage jobs mining offers. As pointed out in the NYT article, there’s also a hypocrisy to “elitists” living in urban centers dictating what rural Northern Minnesotan’s can and cannot do with the land while benefiting from metals produced from mining.

Perhaps this harsh dichotomy doesn’t have to exist. Minnesota’s BWCA and Lake Superior offer some of the world’s most abundant and pristine fresh water resources. In an era rife with water shortages/crises, extreme heat, and rampaging wildfires, the immense value of these resources shouldn’t be taken for granted. The BWCA also provides an escape for many from a loud, noisy, and interconnected world.

One possible solution is to look outside the United State’s borders at successful programs centered around payments for environmental services (“PES”). These programs can “encourage projects that enhance restoration, production, and rural development.” An example is the UN REDD+ program which creates financial value for carbon stored in forests by offering incentives for developing countries to reduce carbon emissions from deforestation/degradation. The Guardian has compared PES programs to a public utility that generates electricity, “[j]ust as we pay for electricity services, and thus ensure their continuing provision, so . . . should [we] pay for the climate service that tropical forests provide.” In fact, carbon offset credit markets now exist where individuals can pay for carbon reduction/eliminating services to  offset their carbon footprint.

While the resources the BWCA, Lake Superior, and the Superior National Forest offer are distinct from carbon sequestration services of forests in tropical regions, the fundamental principles behind PES can still be applied. Because the proposed mines would sit on public lands, payments for land preservation would need to be returned to communities with a focus on economic stimulation of the region. While direct payments have worked in other contexts (e.g. giving money directly to residents of neighboring communities that would be harmed by a moratorium on mining), this would not negate the social/cultural need many have to work a steady job. Furthermore, if the state attempted to transfer payments to Iron Range residents through the tax system, it could face equal protection challenges. See Zobel v. Williams, 457 U.S. 55 (1982) (holding that a taxation scheme wherein residents were paid a graduated rebate based on how many years they had lived in-state violated the equal protection clause).

Ultimately, a PES program in Minnesota would raise significant legal and cultural implications. But if 70% of Minnesotan’s oppose copper-nickel mining in Northern Minnesota, maybe they’d be willing to pay to keep that wilderness wild.