Twin Metals leases vetoed, review begins of mineral withdrawal near BWCA

The Department of Interior announced today that they were denying Twin Metals Minnesota’s application to extend two mineral leases issued in 1966 and beginning a process to determine if federal mineral rights in the Boundary Waters watershed should be withdrawn from leasing. This action follows a thirty day comment period in which over 70,000 people asked for the Forest Service to veto Twin Metals’s leases and is the result of U.S. Forest Service “deep concern” about the impact that sulfide mining would have on the nearby wilderness.

In announcing the decision, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell emphasized the irreplaceable value of the Boundary Waters:

“The Boundary Waters is a natural treasure, special to the 150,000 who canoe, fish, and recreate there each year, and is the economic life blood to local business that depend on a pristine natural resource,” said Secretary Vilsack. “I have asked Interior to take a time out, conduct a careful environmental analysis and engage the public on whether future mining should be authorized on any federal land next door to the Boundary Waters.”

It was in recognition of its irreplaceable resources that Congress set aside the Boundary Waters more than 50 years ago.  Today, more than 150,000 annual visitors help drive the local economy through tourism and outdoor recreation.

“There’s a reason that the Boundary Waters is one of the most visited wilderness areas in America: it’s an incredible place,” said U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell. “Today’s best available science is helping us understand the value of the land and water and potential impacts of development in places like the Boundary Waters. This is the right action to take to avoid irrevocably damaging this watershed and its recreation-based economy, while also taking the time and space to review whether to further protect the area from all new mining.”

The immediate impact of the decision is that Twin Metals no longer holds the mineral rights to a wide swath of their proposed underground copper-nickel sulfide mine. In addition to the decision on the leases, the Department of Interior also announced it was commencing a review of all federal mineral rights in the Boundary Waters watershed. This will mean a 90 day public input period and an up to two year “time out” where no federal mineral leases will be issued.

The Forest Service also submitted an application to the Secretary of the Interior to withdraw key portions of the watershed that flows into the BWCAW from new mineral permits and leases.

The BLM will review the withdrawal application and issue a notice in the Federal Register to segregate the lands – essentially, place them in a ‘time out’ – for up to two years, subject to valid existing rights.  To preserve the status quo during that ‘time out,’ no new mineral exploration or development applications would be accepted while a thorough, scientific environmental analysis is conducted.  Upon publication of the Federal Register notice, there will be an initial 90-day public review period for the proposed withdrawal and additional analysis during the segregation period that will include further public involvement, including public meetings.

During the segregation period, BLM and the Forest Service will conduct an environmental analysis to determine if the lands should be withdrawn for a period of 20 years. This process will invite participation by the public, tribes, environmental groups, industry, state and local government, as well as other stakeholders.  By law, the Department of the Interior can only withdraw these lands for a maximum of 20 years. Only Congress can legislate a permanent withdrawal.

A map of the area that will be reviewed for mineral withdrawal is below (click to enlarge).

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