It’s likely that you’re reading this on a computer, a phone or some sort of device that’s loaded with copper. From the lights in your home, the pipes under your sink to the renewable energy we so badly need, all of it relies on copper that comes from copper mines.

Try to go a day without using anything that has copper in it.

It’s really hard.

For those of us who oppose copper-sulfide mining in Minnesota, it can be especially troubling to think about how much copper is in our lives. This leads to a question:

Is it hypocritical to oppose copper mining yet still be utterly reliant on copper?

Kanmantoo copper mine, Australia

Copper mining and Minnesota

We hear this argument quite a bit from those who support mining. Copper is part of our lives, so much so that according to the U.S. Geological Survey, every American born in 2008 will use 1,309 pounds of copper during their lifetime.  That’s a lot.

Though we may consume a huge amount of copper, we are not running out of copper. The world has decades worth of copper that has been dug up, refined and is currently on reserve. There may not be an urgent need to open a new mine, anywhere, let alone one that would pollute Minnesota’s pristine waters for hundreds of years.

New frontiers of copper mining

As of 2016, The Copper Alliance, an organization of the copper mining industry, estimated that with the current rate of demand, the world has a 37-year reserve — or about 740 million tons — of deposits that have been “discovered, evaluated and assessed to be economically profitable.” However, these reserves are still in the ground and need to be extracted before they can be used.

This vast reserve is not the only place where we can get copper.

Because policies and technologies for copper recycling has improved, The Copper Alliance notes that “during the last decade more than 30 percent of annual copper use came from recycled sources.” 

So can we get all our copper from recycling?

It’s estimated that over the course of human history, 1.2 billion tons of copper have been mined. As we previously mentioned, the modern world needs copper. However, our phones, hot water heaters, cars and refrigerators don’t last forever. Eventually they break down and contain plenty of perfectly reusable copper. Copper is 100 percent recyclable, in fact, two-thirds of the copper mined since 1900 is still in use.

Considering how much copper in circulation and can be recycled, The Copper Alliance notes, “This enormous stock of copper, contained in its diverse range of end uses, and equivalent to around nearly 30 years of mine production, is often referred to as society’s ‘urban mine.'” 

This suggests that there is a reserve of copper in the urban mine nearly as large as the natural reserve of copper in the earth.

The advent of “urban mining”

A recent study has shown that so-called “urban mining,” the extraction of metals such as copper and gold from e-waste is not only an effective way to manage these growing waste streams, but is more cost effective than virgin mining.

That is, it’s cheaper to extract copper from the televisions people throw away, than to open a mine and extract it from the earth.

Think of it this way: The concentration of copper in the area where Twin Metals wants to mine averages, at best, .66 percent copper. That means it would take about 151 pounds of rock to produce one pound of copper.

The average refrigerator has about five pounds of copper in it and weighs about 300 pounds. There are other appliances that have an even greater copper to weight ratio. Not to mention the copper has already been processed, separated from other impurities and minerals.

The point is it’s a lot easier — and cheaper — to get the copper from an old appliance than from the earth. And the data is now backing this up. From an economic stance, it may very well be cheaper — 13 times cheaper — to mine e-waste than open up a new copper mine.

Which scene do you prefer?

We need copper but not more copper mines

This brings us back to the original question: Is it hypocritical to depend on copper but oppose copper mining in northeastern Minnesota?


There are alternatives. There are other ways to get copper than through hard-rock mining.

Cheaper, more robust recycling and e-recycling programs could ultimately supply us with the majority of copper we need. 

CORRECTION: A previous version of this post mistakingly stated, “If all copper mining stopped around the world, if every smelter and backhoe stopped working, we would not run out of copper until the 2050’s.” This error was based on a misunderstanding of the industry term “reserve.” The mistake has been corrected and we apologize for mischaracterizing this important detail.

Today, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced that he would cancel the application for a proposed 20-year mining ban on 234,000 acres of federal lands in the Superior National Forest. This mineral withdrawal would have protected the Rainy River watershed and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness from the threat of sulfide mining.

Along with impacting the hundreds of thousands of individuals who visit the Boundary Waters each year, this decision will hurt the thousands of people whose livelihoods and economic wellbeing has been built on a thriving outdoor recreation economy in the region.

In a public statement, Perdue says, “It’s our duty as responsible stewards of our environment to maintain and protect our natural resources.  At the same time, we must put our national forests to work for the taxpayers to support local economies and create jobs.”

Ironically, this statement and the federal government’s action comes only days after an economic analysis from Harvard Universityfound overwhelming evidence that opening the region to mining would, in the long run, hurt the regional economy.

By ignoring science, economic studies, disregarding the overwhelming public support of the mining ban made during the comment periods and not allowing the environmental assessment study to be completed, one has to wonder: What prompted this decision?

Today, the Trump administration did a huge favor to Twin Metals and other foreign mining companies who will profit off our public land, pollute a unique ecosystem and harm the thriving economy built around this wilderness.

What does this mean going forward?

The 20-year mineral withdrawal would have been one of the most effective ways to protect the Boundary Waters from the devastating effects sulfide-ore mining.

Currently, there are several dozen federal prospecting permits in place and even more pending review. This means that in the coming years we will have several more Twin Metals and Poly Met-sized fights.

Northeastern Minnesota is blessed with incredible beauty.

That beauty is worth protecting.

In a globalized, interconnected world, non-native species have become a problem in every corner of the planet. The Boundary Waters has not been spared.

Numerous invasive species threaten to degrade natural habitats, and to eat and outcompete native plants and animals.

Excerpt from State of the Boundary Waters Report. Click here to read the entire thing!

Seeds and another material can “hitchhike” on boats, clothing, and gear. Just as people are primarily responsible for the spread of nonnative species, it is people who can help prevent their spread and keep them from infesting the ecosystem.

In this blog, we’ll look at some of the most devastating species and the impact they are having.

Invasive species that threaten the BWCAW

  • Spiny Waterfleas (Bythotrephes cederstroemi) have infested Caribou, Devil Track, Flour, Greenwood, Gunflint, McFarland, Pine, and Saganaga Lakes along the Gunflint Trail. The tiny crustaceans clog fishing lines, outcompete native species, and are not edible to most fish. They were introduced into the Great Lakes in the 1980s by ballast water discharged from ships arriving from Europe and Asia. Anglers help them spread to new waters because the creatures can attach to fishing lines, downriggers, anchor ropes, and fishing nets, and in bilge water, bait buckets, or livewells. Their eggs can sometimes survive out of water, even when dried or frozen.
  • Starry Stonewort (Nitellopsis obtusa) is a plant known to take over lakes, driving out native plants and hurting bass and sunfish spawning habitat. It was found in lakes about 80 miles from the Superior National Forest in September 2016. Easily transported by boaters because of its small reproductive cells which can attach unnoticed to boats and trailers, it also sticks to fur and feathers, making it easy for birds and animals to move it. Hard to eradicate because herbicides usually only kill the parts of the plant they touch.
  • Rusty Crayfish (Orconectes rusticus) grow to four inches long, excluding the claws, and are present in 17 lakes on the Superior National Forest, eight of which border or are in the BWCAW. They have the potential to displace native crayfish species and impact aquatic plant beds which are important habitats for invertebrates and fish.
  • Emerald Ash Borer (EAB) (Agrilus planipennis) is a beetle which threatens to wipe out almost all of Minnesota’s ash trees, one of the most prolific species in the state. Many of the estimated 1 billion ash trees in Minnesota live in dense stands in swamps where few other trees will grow. Their loss could seriously disrupt the ecosystem. EAB infest and kills weak and healthy ash trees alike, its larvae tunneling through the wood, killing them in 1 to 3 years. Once EAB kills off wet ash swamps in Minnesota, the habitat may change over to grass, cattails, and shrubs, threatening the plants and animals that rely on black ash and forest habitats. It could affect hydrology, with snowmelt and spring rainwater that was previously held into the summer in the black ash swamps released more rapidly by other types of land cover.
  • Gypsy moth caterpillars consume the foliage of several types of trees and can destroy millions of acres of forest each year. Egg masses can be found on trees, logs, firewood, campers, canoes, vehicles, and lawn chairs. People may unintentionally help spread the gypsy moth by moving these objects with egg masses attached, which is how the moth got its name.

Help stop invasive species

The Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness has partnered with the Superior National Forest and REI to publish a booklet to help BWCAW users identify non-native invasive species and to prevent their spread.

The guide includes photos and descriptions of 22 of the invasive species of concern in northern Minnesota and describes why they should be a concern to everyone from anglers to gardeners.

In the meantime, here are some steps you can take to to prevent the spread of invasive species:

  • Pack out leftover fishing bait and bait containers.
  • Learn what invasive plants look like and report suspected infestations to the Superior National Forest.
  • Pull confirmed invasive plants out of the soil and leave them there to avoid spreading seeds.
  • Make sure that seeds are not stuck to clothes or gear.
  • Clean mud or dirt off vehicles, pets, and boots before traveling onto public land.
  • Plant native species in gardens and yards.
  • Pay attention to what is in seed packets.
  • Do not move firewood
  • Use locally-acquired or certified firewood.

We have a unique opportunity to limit the negative economic, environmental, and social impacts caused by NNIS in the Quetico-Superior region. Compared to other states or provinces, our region still has relatively low levels of NNIS infestation. However, this could change quickly. With the BWCAW attracting thousands of visitors every year from all over the world, the potential for unwanted hitchhikers is high.

On the 40th anniversary of the creation of the BWCAW — and as part of our longtime leadership in protecting, preserving and restoring this national treasure — the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness has compiled a State of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness report. Examining the current situation in the Boundary Waters, it provides an overview of the ecological health, human experiences and emerging threats.

Want more?

Read the entire report here.

Too often, the issue copper sulfide mining in northeastern Minnesota is overly simplified as a debate between those who want to see economic development in the area and environmentalist who want to keep northeastern Minnesota in a pristine, natural condition.

It’s not that simple.

There are many reasons to keep sulfide mines from opening in Minnesota. One of the big reasons is that these mines would hurt the economy of the region.

Forget all emotional appeals to why we need wilderness. Throw out your sentimental attachment to birch trees, to granite shoreline and thousands of miles of cold, pristine waters. Based on numbers, on cold analysis and projections, opening sulfide mines in the Superior National Forest would be detrimental to the economy.

The long-term economic impact of mining

This month, a study out of Harvard University analyzed two different cases concerning the proposed 20-year moratorium on mining and mineral leases on 234,328 acres of federal lands within the Superior National Forest. This is commonly known as “the withdrawal.”

In the first case, the proposed withdrawal is put in place. In the second scenario, sulfide mining is allowed in the Superior National Forest.

The conventional story many have been led to believe is that mining would produce more economic growth. It would make the region rich.

It would make some people rich, but not the people who live in the region. Or the state.

By looking at these three factors:

  • Employment and income generated by mining 
  • Employment and income generated in the outdoor recreation industry
  • Income associated with in-migration, that is, people moving to the area because of its natural beauty, etc. (its “amenity value”)

The researchers arrived at three main conclusions:

  1. Mining would bring an initial, but short-term growth in employment and income associated with mining activity. Over time, these initial benefits would be outweighed by the negative impact mining would have on the recreational industry and on in-migration. This would lead to a boom-bust cycle that would leave the region worse off economically than it would be under the withdrawal.
  2. Economists examined 72 different income scenarios, representing a range of growth parameters consistent with historical data, previous studies of the region and the academic literature. All scenarios point to the boom-bust cycle of employment and income. In 69 of the 72 income scenarios they considered, the withdrawal of mining from the area would lead to higher incomes than if mining were permitted, in many cases by a large margin.
  3. Their findings are consistent with the academic literature on boom-bust cycles in extractive industries and the literature on the value of outdoor recreational amenities to regional economies.

The wilderness economy is a strong economy

It can be hard to convince people of the value of wilderness. It can be difficult to convey just how important clean water is. Such appeals usually hit the wall of “jobs, jobs, jobs.”

Protecting northern Minnesota from sulfide mining is about protecting jobs.

As more research comes out and more people take a technical look at the economic value of wilderness, it’s apparent that supporting wilderness is supporting a strong, stable economy. As the authors conclude:

We find that, over the 20-year time horizon of the proposed withdrawal, introducing mining in the Superior National Forest is very likely to have a negative effect on the regional economy. Our calculations omit some factors, notably the negative effect of mining on real estate values, that would strengthen this conclusion. We reviewed the relevant literature and conclude that our findings are consistent with the literature, most notably the history of boom-bust economies associated with resource extraction that leave the local economy worse off. We encourage the U.S. Forest Service to consider carefully the full economic effects of the proposed withdrawal over the entire 20-year period included in the proposal.

By the 1920s, people across the United States had caught the wilderness bug. The generation that introduced the idea of conservation into the American conscience — of John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt — had given way to a generation of people eager to get out and explore America’s natural beauty.

For example, from 1910 to 1923, the annual visitors to the National Parks leaped from 173,416 to 1,364,024. During the same time period, the total number of visitors to Yellowstone went up from 19,575 to 138,352 a year.

This phenomenon was happening in Minnesota as well. The pristine lakes and gorgeous wilderness of the northland attracted droves of people in the 1920s. This was a unique place where people could experience a true wilderness, relax, canoe, swim and fish.

Essentially, all the reasons people continue to visit the area.

The 1920s were also the time when Americans were falling in love, and falling hard, with the automobile. Though automobiles allowed people to travel to places of natural beauty, they also conflicted with the idea of a wilderness left in its natural state.

Inevitably, the issue of where to build roads and how to protect the wilderness character of the area led to one of the first big fights in the modern history of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Birth of northern Minnesota tourism 

In 1920, if you wanted to go up Minnesota’s north shore, you would most likely take a steamer from Two Harbors. You could drive, but the road was — to put it generously — primitive.

You’d have to be more foolish than adventurous to attempt the drive.

Businesses, whether in logging or tourism, knew that constructing highways was the key to unlocking the economic potential of the Arrowhead. When the scenic highway from Two Harbors to Ely was complete in 1922, it connected the Iron Range with Duluth and with the metropolitan areas to the south.

This road, along with a smart advertising campaign, made Ely into a tourist destination. The town had a reputation — one it still holds today — as the gateway to America’s only exclusive canoe country.

The easiest and most efficient way for the majority of visitors to reach this canoe wilderness was by car.

Roads and conservationists  

This increase in visitors and increase in traffic prompted plans to build more roads in the Superior National Forest. This would give visitors greater access to the wilderness, open broad areas up for economic development, attract new landowners to build vacation cabins and make it easier for the U.S. Forest Service to administer the area.

Not everyone liked this idea.

Most controversial was the plan to build a road that would connect Ely with the Gunflint trail, and to the north shore.

To many, this was going to far. Roads and automobiles may have allowed people to access the wilderness, but they now threatened to permanently alter the character of the wilderness.

It was one of the first major controversies and ultimately determined the shape of the future BWCAW.

Saving canoe country

A year after it was founded in 1922, the Izaak Walton League was at the head of a coalition of groups and individuals that saw the road as an attempt to turn canoe country into automobile campground.

“Build the roads, and the wilderness is gone,” Will Dilg, president of the Izaak Walton League said at a conference. “The roads, with the others that are bound to follow, will not only defeat the motorist in his efforts to see the wilderness but will spoil it for the great numbers of canoeists who are flocking from all parts of the country and from foreign countries to enjoy this wonderful region.”

For several years the debate continued, and in many ways, it sounded surprisingly simular to the mining debates we hear today.

In 1926, after several years of negotiations, meetings and conferences, a new policy was implemented that would limit the construction of new roads to dead ends and forest-service roads, and set aside 640,000 acres of the Superior national Forest to a primitive, roadless area.

And as you probably know, the Gunflint-Ely road was never constructed.

Ironically, roads introduced more people to the Superior wilderness, but at the same time, threatened the canoe country wilderness.

Those who opposed the road didn’t oppose automobiles or roads, rather, they knew there was something unique about the lake country in northern Minnesota, something worth preserving in its natural and pristine state.

This is something every visitor to the Boundary Waters continues to feel today.

Want to know more? Check out R. Newell Searle’s classic book Saving Quetico-Superior. A Land Set Apart. Searle gives a detailed look at long political history and characters from the early 1900s to the passage of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act in 1972. It’s a fascinating read that is essential  to anyone who wishes to know more about the history of the BWCAW.