If I am what I eat

If I am what I eat then I am usually at least partially composed of mineral elements from within the Saint Louis River watershed, which is the area north and west of Lake Superior that drains to the lake rather than north to Hudson Bay. All my life, I have accumulated these elements through game and fish taken from within the watershed, and garden vegetables, wild berries, and even the very water itself.

We take food very much for granted in this country so it seems a valuable exercise to consider our link, when possible, to its ultimate discrete source. For example, a given carbon atom in my body was once part of an inorganic molecule in the bedrock; one might in theory trace it from that rock to groundwater solution to cedar sprig to deer muscle to pot roast to me. Or similarly to micro to macroinvertebrate to stream chub to walleye and then a riverside skillet with butter.

At the root of these processes and all others is the water, which is why this exercise reframes my sense of land organization into watersheds rather than political boundaries. Unlike so many things in nature, watershed boundaries can be pleasantly discrete. You can straddle a divide, each foot draining to a different ocean.

This landscape whose water the Saint Louis River sheds is made of ultra-ancient precambrian lava flows known as the Duluth Complex. The most recent glaciers scraped and pulverized the earth here and left bare gabbro, intermittently buried by eskers, outwashes, and drumlins of gravel and sediment. The impermeable nature of this “basement bedrock” means that water sits on top of it in vast wetland networks, which drain slowly to Lake Superior via its largest American tributary, the Saint Louis River.

This watershed is part of me for reasons beyond, and maybe more meaningful than, what I eat from it. I grew up on top of it; so did most of my ancestors after they came here from familiar landscapes in Sweden, Norway, and Finland. I have hunted its pine and scrub forests and fished its cold tannic waters since I was old enough to do so. In my childhood it was just home, on the edge of wilderness, woods from here to Canada.

These days I fish it mostly with flies; in the bog-stained water the smallies are dark tarnished bronze, the northern pike are spotted with bright goldenrod, and the brook trout are shaded in charcoal relief. In the big waters, there are big fish, but many of these streams are small, and the season is short; if we can love small trout in headwaters streams then I submit that we can love small bass and pike in headwaters streams. 

I have realized over time that Minnesota’s Arrowhead Region is not all true wilderness, but is in fact actively managed by the government based on its uses — timber, mineral, or recreational. I tend to entertain the idea that such places are valuable on their own merit even if none of us ever “use” them — but I admit that such a stance is radical to the point of irrelevance in conservation discussions.

And so I’m forced to be a realist. And to be fair, it’s not that bad, here at least, because it’s managed as the Superior National Forest, which means I’ve never had to worry about access issues when poring over maps and planning the next trip, or that it will be recklessly clearcut 1890s style, or that that wildfires will burn out of control. Instead I can count on well-maintained roads and trails, boat and canoe landings, and as much solitude as a person could want. As a Minnesotan who travels a bit, I’m often asked if I spend a lot of time in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Folks are shocked when I say no, but the truth is that the entire 3.9 million acre SNF (within which lies the BWCAW) is my backyard, and ten lifetimes isn’t enough time to explore it all, though I plan to try, via truck and boat and canoe and foot. And if you’re an American, you can too. It’s your backyard as much as mine. 

Today, the SNF faces the most significant long-term threat since the clearcutting of the last century that took the pines and the caribou: hard-rock sulfide-ore copper/nickel mining. Despite its rootbeer color, the water in the SNF is clean — as close to pristine as it can be in this age of mercury that falls from the sky. The shallow hydrology of the land here leaves its ecosystems especially vulnerable to pollution, and make that pollution nearly impossible to contain — and it all runs downhill into our Greatest Lake.

I won’t get into the technical details because millions of words have been written on these issues in the past years, both for and against, but the short story is that the aforementioned Duluth Complex is made up of sulfide-bearing rock that is extremely rich in copper and other precious metals, and international mining corporations want in. And local mining interests want them in. Two potential mines are in discussion: the PolyMet project within the Saint Louis River watershed and Twin Metals just north of the Laurentian divide in the Rainy River watershed, which drains via the BWCAW toward Hudson Bay. This kind of mining results in massive quantities of waste rock (up to 99% of the mined material) and water that must be carefully managed indefinitely — many hundreds of years — after the mine is closed.

Both projects are within the SNF, and in an unprecedented move, the Forest Service is taking public comment on the renewal of the mineral leases that Twin Metals Minnesota holds. Normally, such mineral leases are essentially rubber-stamped. But not this time. For brevity’s sake I’ll quote the Forest Service’s sober summary of the risks posed by the Twin Metals project, and why they are stepping in:

“…the Forest Service is deeply concerned by the location of the leases within the same watershed as the BWCAW, and by the inherent risks associated with potential copper, nickel and other sulfide mining operations within that watershed. Those risks exist during all phases of mine development, implementation and long-term closure and remediation. Potential impacts to water resources include changes in water quantity and quality, contamination from acid mine drainage, and seepage of tailings water, tailings basin failures and waste rock treatment locations.”

Even though it would only directly impact Twin Metals, a non-renewal of these leases for environmental reasons may well have a chilling effect on future development of sulfide-ore mines within the Superior National Forest — and there is the potential for a lot of future development. Maps put together by the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy show the entire region peppered with non-ferrous mineral leases in various stages of exploration.

Or the opposite could happen. If the USFS renews the leases, even if both Twin Metals and PolyMet are developed and manage to operate perfectly, with minimal environmental degradation, we will be staring down the barrel of a generation or more of hard-rock sulfide-ore mining in the Superior National Forest, and someday, some mine will have a disaster that my kids and grandkids and their great-grandkids will have to deal with, and the landscape will be altered forever.

I know these issues are complex; I know that the device I’m working on and the one you’re reading from right now both contain lots of copper. I know people in economically-depressed mining towns need jobs so they can raise their families in a part of the world that they love as much as I do. But the potential risk of not just Twin Metals, but also PolyMet, and a long future of sulfide-ore mining in Minnesota — that risk is just too much to ask.

Speaking of asking: please use the links below.

Groups working to prevent sulfide-ore mining in northeast Minnesota: