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The Edges of Protected Places



This piece on the threat of a large copper mine to Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is a sign a failure in the larger wilderness debates, which is not creating buffer zones of limited industrial activity that would allow some economic functions but also keep the core area ecologically secure. To be able to place a destructive and awful copper mine on the edge of a place like the boundary waters would have a huge impact on the water quality in the wilderness. Similarly, the plans of developers to build thousands of housing units on the edge of the Grand Canyon National Park would have been utterly disastrous. Luckily, the government stepped in to stop the latter project. I do believe that the Department of Interior won’t allow this mine to be developed, but it shouldn’t come to this. We need stronger buffer zones around wilderness areas.

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  • slothrop1

    My favorite is the nuclear waste storage and potash mining next door to Carlsbad caverns.

    • Perhaps they can buy up some land in a Texas community and store it there. Not like the locals would mind.

    • The nuclear waste storage facility is a) not next door to Carlsbad Caverns, but many miles away and b) in a very stable salt formation. That doesn’t mean it is safe, per se, but it’s not really an issue in regards to national park.

      • slothrop1

        Actually, my sister-in-law’s sister is a superintendent of the nuclear-waste partnership, and she has a very different view. But you know everything.

        • slothrop1

          This is how bad it is down there – she takes care of her mother, and decided that the threat to Carlsbad was so severe that she moved her mother to Hobbes, New Mexico.

  • Is there a safe place for a mine? The purpose of a mining company is to dig up the earth for profit, and then file for bankruptcy when complete so that it can dump the cleanup costs onto the public.

    • gorillagogo

      I was wondering that myself, although reading the linked article it seems this particular location is bad for multiple reasons — it threatens the wilderness area, and the surrounding rock is high on sulfur content, so the waste would cause sulfuric acid to be released.

      • NeonTrotsky

        There’s a river in Montana thats not safe to swim in because of a flood a hundred years ago that washed copper mine runoff into the river

        • Webstir

          Are you talking about the Clark Fork? As a Missoula native, I can attest to the fact that Montanan’s take their rivers seriously. I’d be surprised to learn that you still can’t swim in whichever river you’re speaking of. Granted, the Butte mining era did a ton of damage, but subsequent superfund activities have mitigated the impacts today. I could be wrong. If so, I’d love to know about it.

          • DrDick

            As current resident of that fair city, we swim in it all the time and, since the removal of the Milltown dam and cleanup of the toxic sediment behind it, heavy metal levels have not been a problem at all. It has never been dangerous to swim in during the 18 years I have been here, unlike the Chicago River.

    • Mining is always going to have a downside, but there are better and worse places and better and worse methods.

  • Webstir

    True, we need stronger buffer zones around designated wilderness. But this doesn’t go nearly far enough. For instance, the following is a quote from a recent research paper documenting the impacts of the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI):

    Urban and suburban development in or near wildland vegetation poses a major threat to the environment (Johnson 2001). Housing development causes habitat loss and fragmentation (Theobald et al. 1997), threatens wildlife populations (Soule ́ 1991), and results in bio- diversity declines (McKinney 2002). It has been esti- mated that 50% of all federally listed threatened and endangered species in the United States are in peril due to urbanization (Czech et al. 2000). These problems are of particular concern in the wildland–urban inter- face (WUI), where homes and associated structures are built among forests, shrubs, or grasslands.

    Here’s the link to the paper if anyone is interested: http://www.nrs.fs.fed.us/pubs/jrnl/2005/nc_2005_radeloff_001.pdf

    The impacts can be managed through the use of planning and zoning; however, in the pursuit of tax revenue, and pressure form lobbying arms such as the construction, banking, real estate industries, most attempts taking steps to address the problem fail at the local level.

    For the average person in the U.S., the continued practice of residential development interspersed with our wildlands makes absolutely no economic sense. And yet, as you than anyone are aware Erik “Out of Sight” is out of mind. Essentially, the U.S. taxpayers are subsidizing the luxury of those that are privileged to own land adjacent to our National Forests and wild spaces. Take for example the fires raging in California right now. Who do you think is fighting those? Answer? You are, because your taxes are paying for the the US Forest Service to fight them. Where we could be letting fires burn because the west is a fire adapted ecology and actually needs fire to thrive, instead we attempt suppress every spark because of worries about structures adjacent to and intermingled with the wildlands.

    Take for example our barrier islands. Take for example the rampant construction that occurs in flood plains. These areas too could be zoned as parkland and recreation areas that would provide valuable ecologic, amenity and recreational value for adjacent urban centers. But no, every time nature does what nature does we call it a “tragedy;” while we nationally subsidize recovery efforts, let the privileged few rebuild, and watch the bankers, realtors, construction companies, and Counties laugh merrily skip to the bank to deposit their windfall.

    Yes Erik, much wider problem at hand here. I’ve got a JD with a certificate in Natural Resource and Environmental law, coupled with an M.S. in Bioregional Planning and Community Design. In pursuit of my M.S. I studied this issue extensively. If you’d like, I’d love to co-author a follow up to Out of Sight called “Out of Mind.” The problem is crying for a solution.

    • There are lots of scholars and writers who have written on these issues, including Mike Davis.

      • Webstir

        Yes, true. I’ve read Davis. And of course Kunstler (who is turning into a quack in his old age), the New Urbanists, et. al. And yet many, if not most, are of a bygone era and have a tendency IMHO to over “utopianize” the issue, which decreases their accessibility beyond theory. I’m thinking more along pragmatic economic and public health and safety lines.

  • N__B

    I found an interesting comparison to be the historic temple complexes in Ayutthya, Thailand, versus the temple complexes in Angkor, Cambodia. The Thais have 7-11s across the street from many of their sites, while the Cambodians have a miles-wide, access-controlled perimeter. It probably reflects the relative importance of the sites to the local economies, but it’s jarring.

    • There’s been some pretty big fights in Mexico over western corporations building fast food joints and Walmarts near their temple complexes.

      Also, Ayutthya is a really cool place. Sadly, I have not been to Angkor.

      • N__B

        As much as I hate the heat, it’s worth seeing Angkor.

        I should have said in my previous comment that I see a similarity between the way we treat natural protected places and man made protected places.

        • Hogan

          You mean in the sense of not protecting them?

          • N__B

            Not protecting is a form of protection.

  • JL

    A little OT, but possibly relevant to your interests: I’m currently at a computer science conference listening to someone present a paper (jointly written by computer scientists and biologists) that uses computer simulation with evolutionary dynamics factored in – something that is apparently not usually factored in – to study how to place nature reserves in order to maximize biodiversity. The paper is here if you’re interested. It seems reasonably accessible to non-scientists, but I’m hardly the best judge of that.

    As the authors acknowledge, a bunch more work would need to be done before this would be fit to be translated into policy, but it’s an interesting demonstration of the importance of considering evolutionary dynamics in these things. I just happened to be browsing LGM when this talk started and thought “Hey, this might be at least vaguely interesting to Erik.”

    • JL

      And now I’m hearing a talk that argues that computational/mathematical simulations of ecosystems and social systems are doomed to suck if they ignore historical context, which also seems vaguely Erik-relevant.

      This guy is throwing a LOT of shade at other researchers, damn. Sorry, I will stop hijacking this thread now.

  • gusmpls

    I’m from the general area. The boom and bust cycle of the mining industry since the stable years (into the ’70s) makes people desperate. They’re willing to give up the very things that make the area a good place to live for a couple decades of good jobs. It’s an understandable impulse given the economic climate there.

    If you’ve never had the opportunity to spend a week in the BWCAW (two weeks is better), you’re missing out. The wildlife is fantastic (I once had a bull moose come uncomfortably close on a very narrow stretch of river). The quiet is something that you don’t get to experience much, just wind in trees, water lapping at the shore and loons calling, wolves howling, beavers slapping the water with their tails, etc. The night skies make you feel very, very small and you have a pretty decent shot of seeing northern lights. It’s a very special place.

    • EliHawk

      I did 10 days in BWAC (well, mostly the Canadian side) back when I was a Scout, so it was 13 years ago. It was completely gorgeous country, and also incredibly isolating and peaceful. Our crew could go whole days without seeing anyone else, and the camp sites themselves were as wilderness as you can get: a fireplace and nothing else. (I think the American side had latrines, but not more than a wooden stool over a hole.) Didn’t get any Northern Lights in June, but still a wonderful wilderness trip.

  • DrDick

    This is something we are constantly fighting here in Montana, with the state GOP predictably on the side of corporations. Fortunately, even a lot of conservatives here want to protect parts of the environment.

  • Joe Bob the III

    I would not be surprised if the Twin Metals proposal is stopped. A different and equally, if not more, troubling sulfide mining project is Polymet. Twin Metals would be an underground mine. Polymet is open pit. Polymet is not as immediately proximate to the BWCAW but its sites are indirectly connected to that watershed and directly to that for the St. Louis River and, by extension, Lake Superior. Interestingly enough, segments of the St. Louis River used to be EPA Superfund sites thanks to mining waste and they have only recently been cleaned up.

    Polymet has completed an EIS, that has been accepted by the state, and Polymet is now in the permitting process. The EIS took about 10 years. Permitting may not be equally lengthy but it could still be several years and could still end the project.

    Polymet, and the same would probably apply at Twin Metals, is premised upon an active water treatment process to remove contaminants before water is discharged from the site. Otherwise, it doesn’t work and can’t meet state and federal water quality standards. The risk here is both to the environment and taxpayers. A key to allowing the mine to go forward is getting financial guarantees to maintain pollution controls at the mine and organize an orderly shutdown if it were to go bankrupt. Of course, the other big questions are if the treatment process will work as advertised and will be operated as promised. The mine’s operating permit would be for 20 years and could be renewed. The water treatment would have to continue for an indefinite period of time. Even if you completely set aside the environmental concerns, taxpayers will be put at risk for this project.

    This issue isn’t going to go away any time soon. By some estimates, the formations in this area are the largest in the world, contain about $1 trillion worth of metal, and could be mined for 200 years. Even if these current proposals don’t go anywhere, they will be back.

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