It came as no surprise to Becky Rom that Minnesota Congresswoman Betty McCollum was the first politician in Washington to table legislation to protect the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Voyageurs National Park from sulfide ore copper mining. McCollum's proposed National Park and Wilderness Waters Protection Act, announced yesterday, builds on a tradition of environmental advocacy originating from her St. Paul, Minn.-based seat. Before he passed away in 2000, congressman Bruce Vento "was a defender of the Boundary Waters and Voyageurs for decades," says Rom, a native of Ely, Minn. and chairperson the Campaign of Save the Boundary Waters. "[McCollum] is carrying on as a defender of public lands."
Political tradition aside, the aggressive campaign opposing the Twin Metals mine on the doorstep of canoe country has had a profound impact on regional and national awareness of the threats of mining in the watershed of America's most popular wilderness area. The group has commissioned eight reports by scientists from around the country to demonstrate how copper mining in sulfide ore will likely contaminate waterways and damage forest ecosystems.
Rom is thrilled that the conservation message is getting out. Earlier this week, a poll conducted for the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, a statewide coalition of environmental and conservation nonprofits, showed that over 60 per cent of Minnesotans oppose sulfide ore copper mining "in areas near the Boundary Waters Wilderness."
"It shows there's a clear majority throughout the state—including local residents in northeastern Minnesota—who say this is the wrong place for this sort of activity," notes Rom. "Beyond the political statement, it shows the mining company that people won't tolerate this. It sends a big signal that the country's engaged."
Rom suspects the 60,000 petitions directed to Rep. McCollum and President Obama also had an effect. Many of these signatures resulted from outdoor educators' Dave and Amy Freeman's Paddle to D.C., a 2,000-mile sailboat and canoe journey from Ely to the White House completed last December.
"We knew Paddle to D.C. was just the beginning of what will be a lengthy and challenging process to protect the Boundary Waters from copper mining," says Amy Freeman. "[McCollum's bill] makes me feel like we've made some progress."
The next order of duty for the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters is to rally support for Rep. McCollum's bill. Rom admits "public lands bills can take up to 10 years to pass," but she's optimistic that "it puts the debate squarely on the national stage.
"Our campaign intends to work hard to build bi-partisan sponsorship for the bill," she continues. "We want to move quickly and firmly to highlight the issue throughout the 50 states."
Watch Nate Ptacek's short film A Quest for Clean Water, documenting the Freeman's Paddle to D.C.
–Check out our five-part series covering the Paddle to D.C. expedition.