Eighth District Representative Rick Nolan is known for tap dancing around various issues, but none so confusing as his position on mining and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW). When it comes to precious metals near the BWCAW, Nolan pivoted overnight from, “Not until it can be done safely,” to Quintessential Company Man, parroting industry talking points and accusing skeptics of destroying the Iron Range.
But Nolan’s recent claims about the 1978 legislation that established the BWCAW are false. “The agreement at that time was clear—both written and unwritten,” he told Mesabi Daily News in 2015.
“More than a million acres of federal lands were set aside for national parks and wilderness areas. In exchange, the remaining federal lands would be reserved for multiple use purpose outside those boundaries, including forestry and mining. That was the agreement. It was heralded as a good deal then, and we are duty-bound to honor it now.”
Nolan has made similar statements about copper-nickel mining adjacent to the BWCAW. A year later, in the Duluth News Tribune:
“Nolan said the 1970s agreement creating the federal wilderness set aside 1.9 million acres of land for no mining but allowed for logging, mining and motorized use outside the formal wilderness. ‘A deal is a deal,’ Nolan said.” [“Nolan: Minnesota can have mining and clean water,” April 12, 2016]
Last week, he upped the ante, claiming that “mining operations were shut down” as a result of the BWCAW Act, even though there has never been mining in the Boundary Waters. “There was a very clear understanding among those of us who were there at the time that the remainder of the Superior National Forest would be reserved for multiple use purposes provided they could meet the most rigorous state and federal environmental rules and regulations” [The Paul and Jordana Show, WCCO Radio, October 12].
But there isn’t any such deal and there never was, according to Kevin Proescholdt, co-author of the 1995 book, Troubled Waters: The Fight for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Proescholdt, who was once a Nolan ally, also penned a column for the Duluth News Tribune on September 17, 2017, asserting there was never any such “secret deal” or implicit understanding. “It was never reported anywhere because it never occurred.”
Nolan inserted himself into the dispute soon after his first election to Congress in the Sixth District in 1974. During the annual BWCA fishing expedition for disabled veterans in 1975, the Ely Echo reported that Nolan said he would support legislation to rescind the snowmobile ban in the Boundary Waters.
A letter Nolan sent to organizers after that fishing weekend read, in part, “I assure you that I will work closely with [then-Eighth District Congressman Jim] Oberstar to preserve the right of all people to use and have access to this wonderful and beautiful recreational area” But back in Washington, Nolan was singing a different tune, and ultimately he refused to support Oberstar’s efforts to keep the Boundary Waters open to everyone.
Instead, Nolan joined forces with then-Fifth District Representative Don Fraser to designate every inch of the BWCA as wilderness and ban all motorized vehicles, effectively closing the Boundary Waters to families with young children, people with disabilities, senior citizens, and anyone unable to spend several days portaging and paddling a canoe.
Ironically, the Fraser/Nolan bill would have eliminated motorboats on the very same lakes that the disabled veterans fish every year.
Today, Nolan seems to be putting a new spin on arguments he made in support of total wilderness designation for the BWCA during the 1970s battle.
Oberstar’s bill divided the BWCA into a total wilderness area and a multi-use area, which remained open to motorboats and snowmobiles and permitted limited logging in second-growth areas only. Canadian Border Lodge owner Ron Stockdill wrote to Nolan, expressing dismay that such an extreme bill would put resorts and outfitters out of business. Nolan’s response was published in the Ely Echo on June 8, 1977:
Oftentimes it is necessary for individuals who have the vantage point of looking at an issue from a distance to provide input into a controversy such as that which currently plagues the BWCA. There are countless miles for snowmobiles to ride on outside the BWCA. There are thousands of lakes for motorboats to travel over which are outside this area. The timber and mining interests presently own thousands of square miles which they can ravage for profit. With all this area, why must we allow the BWCA to be ruined as well?
If the day came when the Boundary Waters Canoe Area was ravaged by timber and mining interests, when the lakes were filthy with petroleum sludge and roadsides choking with litter, we would ask ourselves why we didn’t take measures to avoid this contamination.
I know the Fraser bill makes the changes which will benefit the livelihood of the BWCA to the greatest extent and for the longest period of time. The Oberstar proposal satisfies the short-term problems but neglects the situation when the virgin timber has been harvested, the land mined out and the companies responsible moved out of the area...Instead only a scarred landscape will be left and you will still be out of business.
Oberstar never wanted mining in the Boundary Waters and eventually dropped the logging provision. By 1978, the fight over the BWCA centered around use of motors and snowmobiles. Oberstar argued on the House floor: “What we are down to...is the people question. Who is going to use the area, those from thousands of miles or hundreds of miles away, or those who live in the area, whose lives and livelihoods are dependent upon the small businesses?”
Nolan’s claim that 1978’s “compromise bill” involved a secret deal that land outside the BWCA remain open for mining is simply not true. Concern about copper-nickel mining next to the BWCA goes back decades. By continuing to misrepresent his previous argument that mining companies could continue to “ravage” areas outside the wilderness as some sort of unwritten understanding that mandates renewal of Twin Metals leases, Nolan is depriving constituents of meaningful debate about an issue that still bitterly divides the public. The question is why.
A member of Investigative Reporters and Editors, Shelly Mategko is an award-winning journalist.