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The world depends on copper, but do we need another copper mine?

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.

The Trump administration’s huge gift to foreign-owned corporations

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.

State of the Boundary Waters: Invasive Species in the North

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.

The economic hangover of sulfide mining

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.

State of the Boundary Waters: Precious Water


In the coming century, no resource will be as valuable as clean water. The 2,000 lakes of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, with their abundant clean water and critical aquatic habitat, become more precious every year.

However, as the climate warms and changes, precipitation patterns and other parts of the water cycle are shifting. The lakes of the Boundary Waters are becoming more endangered as extractive and polluting industries target the region.

Current Water Conditions

Ninety-two percent of lakes in northeastern Minnesota meet water quality standards for aquatic recreation — suitable

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

for fishing and swimming. The high number of healthy waters is largely due to the region’s abundant wetlands and forest, which slow and filter runoff and erosion.

The waters of the BWCAW are some of the cleanest and most beloved in the nation. Every lake, stream, and wetland in the wilderness is designated by the state of Minnesota as “Outstanding Resource Value Waters.”

In one study of Boundary Waters lakes which used satellite imagery and analysis to estimate water clarity, 100 percent were found to fully support recreation like swimming. The sub-watersheds of the Kawishiwi River located entirely or mostly within the wilderness are all “excellent, relatively stable, and reflective of natural watershed conditions.”

Most of the lakes in the BWCAW have low or intermediate levels of living matter in the water, due to the climate, geology and forested landscape of the wilderness. This makes them ideal for swimming and drinking, as well as good habitat for certain fish species, including lake trout. They are often stained red-brown with tannins, dissolved peat, from wetlands in the headwaters of lakes and rivers.

The Threats from Copper Mines

In 2013, the Kawishiwi River, which flows out of the Boundary Waters near Gabbro Lake and re-enters at Fall Lake, was named one of the 10 Most Endangered Rivers in America. The designation was due to the Twin Metals mine proposal, which would be located next to and even under the river only a few miles upstream from the wilderness.

The Boundary Waters remains one of the most threatened water systems in the U.S.

Extracting copper and nickel from sulfide ore releases an acidic byproduct that would damage this pristine water.

The mix of acidic water laden with toxic metals that runs off waste rock and other parts of the mine is called Acid Mine Drainage. This substance can kill fish and other aquatic life, leaving lakes and rivers dead for years.

The Threat Posed by Mercury

Almost all areas of northeastern Minnesota have lakes with average mercury concentrations in game fish at or above safe levels. This includes many lakes in the BWCAW. The lakes have “consistently high [total mercury] concentrations and many have high [methylmercury] concentrations.”

Two conditions in the region cause mercury to easily contaminate the ecosystem:

  1. Forests capture atmospheric mercury in plant leaves, which fall to the ground and are carried into water systems.
  2. Certain bacteria in the region’s peatlands convert the metal from a non-toxic form into its dangerous form, methylmercury, which works its way through the food web into fish and other animals.

The Effects Mercury Has on You

Methylmercury is a problem not just for wildlife but also for humans. It can harm the central nervous system, causing poor motor skills, dulled senses, and in severe cases, irreversible brain damage.

Mercury is particularly harmful to developing fetuses and infants, with effects occurring in babies at exposure levels five to ten times lower than that of adults. In the Lake Superior basin, eight percent of Minnesota’s infants surveyed were born with high levels of mercury, above the regional average.

Coal-fired power plants are the largest source of mercury emissions in the Great Lakes region, followed by metals

Photo courtesy of Benjamin Olson

mining and processing and fossil fuel combustion. Approximately 100 tons of mercury are emitted from human activities each year in the United States. In Minnesota, emissions have been reduced by more than half since the state and utilities began efforts to cut mercury in the mid-1990s, when Minnesota released 1,850 pounds into the atmosphere. It has already reached 870 pounds per year, and is headed for for less than 200 pounds.

Much of the mercury deposited in the Boundary Waters comes from sources far from Minnesota – carried thousands of miles on the wind, falling to earth and into wilderness waters. About 90 percent of the mercury deposited in Minnesota originates from other states and countries.

Mercury contamination has proven to be a persistent problem. While the Great Lakes states and Ontario have made progress in reducing their mercury emissions, as much as 50 percent since 1990, mercury contamination in our lakes, streams, and fish remain high.

Visitor impacts

The 150,000 people who visit the wilderness each year can add up to a lot of people rinsing themselves, cleaning dishes, shampooing, and using latrines near the water. Without care, users can be a source of significant water pollution.

Wilderness visitors can help protect canoe country’s waters by following the rules and practicing Leave No Trace camping principles. These practices include taking steps to avoid water contamination, such as:

  • Not soaping and rinsing in lakes
  • Always using designated latrines
  • Not washing dishes in lakes
  • Don’t go in water when you’re covered in bug spray, sunscreen, soap, and don’t spit your toothpaste in the water.
  • Consider natural cleaning and hygiene products.
  • Use the latrines for their intended purpose.
  • Don’t burn trash, which releases dioxins into water.

One of the most common ways humans contaminate wilderness waters is with bacteria.

Fecal coliform concentrations (E. coli) in waters around Boundary Waters campsites are often significantly elevated, due to shallow topsoils and limited latrine locations, bathing or defecating in water, and overuse. E. coli infections include stomach cramps, diarrhea, and vomiting. Children are more likely than adults to develop symptoms.

Human’s visiting the wilderness do not seem to be adding to the amount of nutrients and the increased algae in the lakes, and other resulting impacts to water quality.

A recent study by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, U.S. Forest Service, and Vermilion Community College of three high-use wilderness lakes: Alton, Ensign, and Caribou found all three met water quality standards for clarity, nutrients, and algae. There was no significant difference in water quality between the deep and shallow locations.

A Fragile Balance

The rocky lakes of the border country are sometimes seen as “sterile.” They are actually home to many plants and animals, but naturally have some of the least amount of organic activity in the world.

This “low productivity” is a result of their northern latitudes, cold and deep waters, the basalt bedrock, and the surrounding landscape of unbroken forests, wetlands, and more lakes and rivers. There are generally low amounts of nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, and thus fewer algae and zooplankton, and more competition between fish for limited food sources.

Changes to the wilderness — whether from temperature changes, human activities, alterations to fire patterns or precipitation — can disrupt how these low production lakes function. Fires can create erosion and increased runoff in rain storms, resulting in a flow of soil and nutrients into the lakes. Warm weather and changes in wind patterns, combined with lake depth and fetch, can interfere with lake functions.

How can you help?

Wilderness travelers have an important role to play in monitoring the BWCAW’s water quality.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is looking for help from citizens to collect water quality data so the state can better track changes to water quality — and address negative impacts. To join the effort, contact the Citizen Lakes Monitoring Program Coordinator at 800-657-3864 or via email at

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.