Dave and Amy Freeman are a husband and wife team advocating for, and educating the public about a threat affecting one the United States’ largest national forests from sulfide-ore mining. On September 23rd, 2015, the couple embarked on a year-long expedition to save the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness from sulfide-ore mining adjacent to the Wilderness. Their adventure is documented on Facebook and Instagram with beautiful images and stories. In this interview, they talk about their advocacy expeditions, the land they love, and what they’ve learned during their time in the real world.
In 2014, you undertook a 2,000-mile canoe trip from Ely, Minnesota to Washington, DC to protect the one-million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) from sulfide-ore mining. Along the way you collected thousands of signatures on your canoe, as well as many others who signed the petition online. Could you tell us about the outcome of your Paddle to DC: A Quest for Clean Water expedition, in terms of the awareness raised along your journey and for policy makers in DC?
Paddle to DC helped bring the sulfide-ore copper mines being proposed along the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness—by Twin Metals and their South American parent company—to a national audience. During our 100-day journey by water from Ely, Minnesota to Washington, DC we organized over 40 events with the help of local partners and met directly with more than 3,000 people. Paddle to DC generated close to 100 news stories and we gathered over 10,000 petition signatures in person and online.
There were more than 40 folks from Minnesota who joined us in DC. We spent several days meeting with a wide range of elected officials and government agencies, educating them about the proposed mines and explaining the dramatic threats these mines pose to the Wilderness and to the livelihoods of the dozens of business owners and fellow residents who joined us in DC.
In many ways, Paddle to DC was a launching point for the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, which has quickly grown into a diverse coalition of individuals, businesses, and organizations from across the country that are working to protect our nation’s most popular wilderness. Nate Ptacek made a great 8 minute video about Paddle to DC, which is worth watching.
The petition is still open today, and you’re mid-way through another advocacy expedition to save the Boundary Waters from sulfide-ore mining. My understanding is that exploratory drilling is still happening in the area today. If mineral mining is allowed in the region, how is it likely to affect the ecology, and how the forest is used?
Twin Metals and other proposed mines are in the Superior National Forest. One million of its 3 million acres is designated as wilderness. The prospecting is happening in the Superior National Forest just south (outside) the Wilderness Boundary, and any water pollution from the proposed mine sites would flow directly into the wilderness.
This type of mining has never been done anywhere in the world without polluting the ground or surface water. The EPA considers this type of mining (hardrock mining) to be the nation’s most polluting industry. The Superior National Forest represents approximately 2% of the land in our national forest system, but it contains 20% of the freshwater in our National Forests. This is an extremely water-rich environment, and the water has a very low buffering capacity, so even small amounts of pollution would have a dramatic impact on the ecosystem.
A recently released, peer-reviewed study of hydrology of the proposed Twin Metals Mine plan found that under normal operation, the small leaks and spills that commonly occur as part of the mining process pollution would flow into the Wilderness.
The Superior National Forest represents approximately 2% of the land in our national forest system, but it contains 20% of the freshwater in our National Forests. This is an extremely water-rich environment, and the water has a very low buffering capacity, so even small amounts of pollution would have a dramatic impact on the ecosystem.
Are you noticing any changes in the Boundary Waters region? Naturally occurring or otherwise?
So far the impacts have been relatively small. Drilling and truck traffic can be heard from certain places near the edge of the wilderness during test drilling. The footprint of the test drilling in the Superior National Forest is certainly affecting the forest with the construction of temporary roads to access the drill sites, and the noise and dust associated with the drilling and truck traffic.
It is also impacting residents and businesses because a significant portion of the test drilling is being done on private land. In Minnesota most people do not own their mineral rights, so mining companies can prospect on their land and build a mine on their land if they choose.
Really the impacts so far are small compared to the massive industrial mining zone that is being proposed.
During your advocacy expeditions, I’m sure you meet with many supporters who understand and advocate for protecting our environment for generations to come. Have you come across those who express an opposing point of view? What are their arguments? And how do you address their concerns?
The vast majority of people we meet are very supportive of our efforts, but this is a complicated issue and not everyone agrees with us. Most people we have talked with who are in favor of building the mines feel that the mines would create more jobs and that we need the minerals.
Our region does need more jobs. This region has a long history of iron ore mining, which is very different than the sulfide-ore copper mines being proposed. Right now hundreds of miners are laid off because of the boom and bust cycle that is typical of a mining economy, and some folks want to build the new mines to create jobs. These new mines would create jobs while the mines are operating, but jobs in the tourism industry and other sectors of our economy would be lost. Mining does create jobs, but if you look at the economics of mining both in our region and across the country, you find that mining towns have lower average incomes and are not as well off as places where mining is not a large part of their economy. We don’t want to trade our sustainable, diverse economy that relies on the Wilderness and the clean water and intact forests of the region for the boom and bust economy associated with mining.
We all use minerals and we need mining. Almost every aspect of our lives is tied in some way to copper and other metals. We are not against mining, but there are some places were it makes sense to build a mine, and there are other places that are too valuable, and the risks associated with mining are too high. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is a national treasure, like Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. It is too valuable on a local, state, and national level to risk.
We don’t want to trade our sustainable, diverse economy that relies on the Wilderness and the clean water and intact forests of the region for the boom and bust economy associated with mining.
Following your journey through blogs and social media, the experience is breathtaking. Can you put into words what it feels like to be surrounded by nature for so long? What has been your most visceral experience of your Year in the Wilderness thus far? (Other than the spine-tingling chill of stepping into ice cold water!)
We have grown to appreciate the Boundary Waters more than ever, and have a new appreciation for the importance of disconnecting and spending time in nature. Wilderness helps peel away the layers and distills life to its very essence. We have learned that we are happiest when we are surrounded by nature and living simply. Many of the material things that we surround ourselves with in our “normal lives” maybe aren’t as important as we once thought they were.
We have had several encounters with wolves, which have been very memorable. We had a pack of wolves travel right past our tent, and we could hear them howling and barking. They were probably less than 50 yards from our tent. We also watched several packs of wolves run across the frozen lakes during the winter.
We have grown to appreciate the Boundary Waters more than ever, and have a new appreciation for the importance of disconnecting and spending time in nature. Wilderness helps peel away the layers and distills life to its very essence.
Through the beautiful and entertaining ways you document your expeditions, you’re helping to raise greater awareness around the dangers and threats facing the American wilderness. Probably the most powerful tool to protect our forests and waterways, however, is for us to experience it first-hand. How would you convince, or encourage Americans to get out explore the great outdoors?
You’re right. Experiencing nature first-hand is important for so many reasons. We have found that you don’t have to travel far from your home to find wild places. Even massive cities like New York City have parks and open spaces an hours train ride from the city. Turning off your phone and going for a walk or a paddle, fishing in a nearby creek, or hunting for frogs and bugs with a child are adventures we can all have close to home. Connecting with nature helps us remember what it means to be human and is a critical part of life.
Special thanks to Dave and Amy for contributing their time to this post. And also to Jeremy Drucker from the Save the Boundary Waters campaign for additional support. If you’d like to learn more or get involved to help Save the Boundary Waters, sign the petition here. You can also call Minnesota’s congressional delegation to urge senators to protect the BWCA. The Freemans’ advocacy expedition is almost at an end, but there’s still time for us to protect a national treasure and ensure the waterways that support our diverse ecosystems remain untouched and pollution-free.