Beneath the surface of Superior National Forest are copper, nickel, platinum, and palladium. The U.S. Forest Service often holds only surface rights on its lands — the rights to much of the underground wealth are controlled by mining companies.
The Canadian company PolyMet Mining owns 100 percent of the NorthMet ore deposit near Hoyt Lakes in the southern part of Superior National Forest, about 30 miles from Boundary Waters Canoe Area. PolyMet has proposed an open-pit mine there on what is now Forest Service land. Before the land could be mined, however, PolyMet would have to control the surface rights, which it could obtain in a proposed land swap with the Forest Service. If the land trade is approved, PolyMet would turn over what the Forest Service sees as desirable parcels adjacent to Superior National Forest in exchange for the land near Hoyt Lakes, one of numerous small mining towns that make up Minnesota’s Iron Range. The NorthMet site does not drain into BWCA. It is part of the St. Louis River watershed, which flows into Lake Superior.

The land swap and the effects of any mining operation are being assessed now as a supplemental draft environmental statement is prepared. The statement, being worked on by the Forest Service, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is expected by the end of the year, when it will be presented for interagency review and public comment.

In the meantime, the Forest Service is preparing a separate analysis of proposed and projected hard-rock-mineral prospecting in other parts of Superior Forest, not including the Boundary Waters, other areas protected from mineral development, or areas where the federal government does not own the mineral rights. The federal hard-rock-mineral prospecting environmental impact statement looks at the potential effects of geophysical surveys and core drilling. There are already granite quarries and sand and gravel operations in Superior National Forest.

The Forest Service says, “Orderly exploration, development, and production of mineral and energy resources on national forest lands to help meet the present and future needs of the nation is consistent with the Forest Service mission and with the Superior National Forest plan.” Samantha Chadwick, preservation advocate with Environment Minnesota, an environmental advocacy group, says that whatever the decision is on PolyMet, it will have an impact beyond Hoyt Lakes: “Everyone sees PolyMet as the first bulldozer. If they get approval or denial, it’ll mean a lot for projects that more directly threaten the Boundary Waters.”
—Steve Bailey