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New Yorker: Finding Stillness in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters in the Age of Trump

Jul 17, 2019 06:58AM ● By Editor
On a lake in the Boundary Waters, one is held gently, with a buffer from outside forces. But the possibility of copper mining along its border is an alarming threat: the harm would be irreversible. Photo: Christopher Walker

By Alex Kotlowitz from The New Yorker - July 17, 2019

In the summer of 2014, Thomas Tidwell, who had worked for the U.S. Forest Service for thirty-seven years, the last five of those as its chief, decided to visit the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, a mosaic of more than a thousand lakes and rivers on almost 1.1 million acres in northern Minnesota, along the Canadian border. 

A Chilean company, Antofagasta, had asked to renew two leases on land very near the wilderness area, where the firm intended to mine for copper. The U.S. Forest Service, which was later given the authority to grant or deny the request, would hold hearings and look at scientific data, both about the watershed and the kind of mining proposed. But Tidwell wanted to see the area for himself. 

That summer, in a Beaver float plane typically used for search and rescue, Tidwell became one of the few people to observe the B.W.C.A.W. from the air. In 1949, President Truman signed an executive order prohibiting all private and commercial aircraft from flying below four thousand feet over the area. Tidwell had grown up in Idaho and spent much of his career in the West; he was familiar with places like the Bob Marshall Wilderness and Utah’s Wasatch-Cache National Forest, but what he saw from the air over the B.W.C.A.W.s left him awestruck. 

“I couldn’t believe the beauty of the area,” he told me. “And how much water there was. It gave me this sense of wonder—a place where you could get away from everything.”

Two and a half years later, in December of 2016, after an extensive study, the U.S. Forest Service denied the renewal of the leases in a detailed, strongly-worded twenty-eight-page letter to the director of the Bureau of Land Management. “I find unacceptable the inherent potential risk that development of a regionally-untested copper-nickel sulfide ore mine within the same watershed as the B.W.C.A.W. might cause serious and irreplaceable harm to this unique, iconic, and irreplaceable wilderness area,” Tidwell wrote. 

However, when Donald Trump took office, the next year, his Administration revoked the Forest Service’s authority on the issue, and effectively reversed the decision. Antofagasta has since taken the first major step to mine copper along what may well be one of the nation’s most bewitching landscapes. As Tidwell told me, “There’s no place like it in the country. There are places where mining feels like a realistic option. This is the wrong place.”

I first came to the B.W.C.A.W. in the summer of 1975. I had taken a break from college and had just finished working as a community organizer in Atlanta—an exhilarating experience but also one that left me exhausted and unsure of what lay ahead. I flew to Minneapolis to visit a friend who attended college nearby, and we decided to ride our bikes to Duluth and then up Highway 61 (yes, Bob Dylan’s Highway 61) along the Lake Superior shoreline. 

From a small shore town, Grand Marais, we headed up the Gunflint Trail, a winding road that was then partly gravel, and which extends fifty-seven miles to the northeast corner of the wilderness area. There we rented an aluminum canoe and Duluth packs, and followed a snaking river into a series of lakes, each of its own shape and character, each more beautiful than the last. 

I had never experienced such stillness. Indeed, it’s the wondrous paradox of the B.W.C.A.W. that although it’s easily accessible—roughly a hundred and fifty thousand people visit each year—within a day or two of paddling you can go days without seeing another person. There are few vistas from which you can inhale the landscape. Rather, travelling these connected waterways, one feels embedded in the wild, as if curled up on a couch, unaware and unconcerned with what’s happening in the house next door.

I fell in love. Every summer for the past forty-four years, I have headed north—with friends; with children; even, on one occasion, with strangers. Except for a brief period of seven years when I, along with my regular paddling companions, ventured into Canada to run white-water rivers, my destination has been the B.W.C.A.W. 

I grew up in Manhattan and have spent most of my adult life in Chicago, so I think it’s fair to say I’m a city boy. But I feel most at home on the water, travelling by canoe (now lightweight Kevlar, rather than aluminum). It’s there, in the B.W.C.A.W., that I find solace—where I shed my anxieties and worries; where I can jump from small cliffs into deep, clear waters; where I can eat freshly caught trout; where I can be serenaded by the mournful wails of the loons as they welcome in the night. When I’m not there, I yearn for it. 

As the naturalist writer Terry Tempest Williams has written, “If you know wilderness in the way you know love, you would be unwilling to let it go.”

Alex Kotlowitz, who teaches at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, is the author of four books, including the forthcoming “An American Summer.”  To read the original article and see related reporting, follow this link to the New Yorker website.

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