An Interview with Dave and Amy Freeman, Wilderness Explorers

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.

Dave and Amy Freeman pose with friends and fellow advocates around the canoe that took them on their 2,000 mile jouney.

Photo Credit: Nate Ptacek
The culmination of their 2,000-mile journey by canoe ended in Washington, DC where they met with representatives to advocate for the preservation of the Boundary Waters. Their canoe, Sig (named after Sigurd Olson) was signed by thousands of supporters they met along their journey.

 

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.

 

Dave and Amy pull their canoe across a frozen lake.

Photo Credit: Dave Freeman
Dave and Amy pull their canoe across a frozen lake this past winter.

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.

 

Dave and Amy enjoy the view over the lake as dusk sets in.

Photo Credit: Dave Freeman

 

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.

 

Amy gathers logs on the canoe alongside lake.

Photo Credit: Dave Freeman

_____

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.

Sayonara Crude Oil! There’s a re-NEW-able Feedstock in the House.

At some point I am almost certain my work at BLOOM will turn me into a sneakerhead. But then again, I am also inundated in research regarding just how environmentally-detrimental the shoe manufacturing process is. For all the many reasons a person may consider becoming a minimalist, awareness as to just how harmful and pervasive the petrochemical industry is should be a sobering one.

Petroleum is a feedstock used in nearly every product. From the soles of our shoes to the fabric on our backs, and even in deodorant, it would seem there is no getting around the non-renewable resource. It is also the key ingredient in flexible foam, the stuff shoe insoles and midsoles are made of. Get the EVA (ethylene vinyl acetate) formulation right, and your shoes are lighter, bouncier, more flexible, more resilient… The list of competitive benefits goes on, but EVA itself presents an environmental problem that begins at formulation and gets trapped in landfills for thousands of years.

 

EVA (ethylene vinyl acetate) does not biodegrade, meaning it could last for thousands of years in the landfill.

 

The shoe industry is deeply aware of the barriers it faces in producing footwear that mitigates environmental harm, and it is a responsibility they take seriously. Well-known pioneers like Patagonia (although not currently in the shoe market) and Keen, and relatively newcomers to sustainability like Nike and Adidas are leveraging their best minds to focus on sustainable innovation.

Researching the topic is a dizzying conundrum—the more I try to learn about the materials and processes that go into making shoes, the more questions I am hit with in return. A 2008 Runner’s World article talks about the long-standing sustainability challenges the running shoe industry has had difficulty overcoming, until now.

The shoe industry is deeply aware of the barriers it faces in producing footwear that mitigates environmental harm, and it is a responsibility they take seriously.

BLOOM custom-formulates and manufactures plant-based flexible foams made with algae biomass. Research conducted by our scientists have found that algae contains thermoplastic qualities that, when added to the EVA compound, actually improve performance aspects of the foam itself. Independent testing by potential customers have further validated our findings. We are working on improving a few cosmetic aspects of our foam, like safely removing the pigment, chlorophyll, to produce a pure white foam; and reducing the natural earthy scent from the algae biomass, but as far as performance goes we’re thrilled to offer a solution that overcomes a 30-year barrier: We are, to date, the only renewably-sourced plant-based solution to petrochemical foams on the market.

We’re obviously not the first to tap into the myriad of biochemical uses for algae. For decades, scientists and chemists in academic and private sectors have researched ways to make carbon-neutral biofuels, nutrition supplements, and even cancer treatment applications from the wonder plant. Algae’s potential is so vast that, according to Sara Menker, CEO of Gro Intelligence, the United States government has invested over $1 billion in algae-related technology.

Most of the research in the algae industry has been through cultivating genetically modified strains grown in tanks. BLOOM’s approach is different. We work with our sister-company, Algix, to harvest algae from freshwater sources—like lakes, rivers, and ponds—at risk of algal bloom. Using proprietary technology, we pump algae-ridden water into a harvesting unit, separate the slurry and remediate the water in the process. Once the slurry is collected, it is transported to our factory where the algae is solar-dried into biomass. The biomass is refined, and that is the key ingredient that replaces a significant proportion of the petroleum used in the flexible foams. This differentiated approach is critical because we are working with nature to turn a negative environmental impact into positive uses in consumer goods. By using biomass instead of extracting fuel from algae, we are able to do more with less waste, and we avoid GMO byproducts.

To get back to the flexible foam used in your running shoes, we can’t say we are the perfect solution, because even though we use a renewable feedstock to offset the amount of petroleum used, EVA itself is not biodegradable. So when your favorite pair of shoes starts to loose its “spring,” we’re no better than the rest (yet). Our lab is working on 100% biodegradable BLOOM foams that maintain high performance factors. Here is what we DO offer today, and why you should care about this innovative step forward in the flexible foam market:

  • Reducing dependence on petrochemical ingredients means we are replacing a harmful, non-renewable resource with a safe, GMO- and pesticide-free, renewable feedstock
  • Our non-invasive algae-harvesting process helps remediate waterways, providing safe drinking water and healthy ecologies for the people and animals who rely on those sources. This is a much more environmentally sound solution to drilling for crude oil that is later processed into petroleum.
  • Harvesting naturally-occurring algae also means we don’t genetically modify the strains, a process that could wreak havoc if leaked into natural habitats
  • By using algae biomass—found in mass-abundance around the world—we provide a cost-competitive and performance-driven solution to petroleum feedstock. Cost-savings that can be passed down to the consumer.

BLOOM offers brands and consumers a viable solution today that is a step in the right direction: Moving away from petroleum as a feed stock and toward a renewable and safe plant-based solution. We continue to test and refine our products toward improved sustainability. Within the flexible foam market, the industry has been looking for a plant-based alternative to petrochemical foams since the 1970s. BLOOM is doing it, and we’re not done innovating yet.

 

If you liked this story, please like us on Facebook, and follow us on LinkedInTwitter, and Instagram.

This Week’s Opportunity for Change: Running Shoes

This week’s Opportunity for Change is running shoes. Any runner will probably agree that there is no better way to kick start the day than with a solid morning run.

 

Running can be a very personal thing and obviously doesn’t require a lot of “stuff” other than you, the road, and a halfway decent pair of lace-ups.

Runners may or may not know this, but running shoes are comprised of a large percentage of ethylene vinyl acetate foam (EVA foam). Conventional EVA foam is derived from non-renewable petro-chemicals and can last as long as 1,000 years in a landfill. With over 20 billions pairs of shoes produced annually worldwide (all types), it’s imperative that alternative material solutions start to make their way into the forefront.

What BLOOM Foam brings to the running shoe market is renewable biomass content (between 15%-60% depending on the formulation). The renewable content is derived from algae biomass collected from waterways worldwide. Not only does the algae biomass collection turn a negative into a positive through the action of removing the algae from waterways and putting it to use in shoes, but it has other beneficial aspects too. For example, an average pair of running shoes might have a pound or more of foam contained in it’s various components. If that foam were to be made from BLOOM it would sequester the equivalent of approximately five standard 12” balloons (think birthday balloons) full of carbon from CO2. Extrapolated over tens of millions and even billions of pairs of shoes, and your left with the potential for an astronomical amount of balloon-equivalent carbon capture. Why use balloons for this example you ask? That’s easy, they are a good visual aid for the sake of discussion.

BLOOM Foam also has several performance advantages over conventional EVA foam.

  • Primarily, initial lab results are showing a slight but meaningful weight reduction in algae-derived foam versus conventional EVA foam in the same density. This could be a big deal for the hyper-competitive running shoe market that constantly strives for near weightlessness.
  • Secondary performance advantages are also being quantified for BLOOM Foam, though more third-party research is needed to prove them before they can be discussed in detail.

All in all, BLOOM Foam is a drop-in replacement for conventional EVA foam and a good choice for runners and shoe designers alike. #algae #‎opportunityforchange

 

This week’s Opportunity for Change: Yoga Mats

This week’s Opportunity for Change is of course yoga mats! We’ve received a bit of PR within the yoga mat space recently, so it’s time to dive in.

Opportunity for Change

Firstly, do you really NEED a yoga mat? Nope. People have been practicing yoga for thousands of years without them. That’s not to say that there isn’t a benefit to using one though. Thanks in large part to modern technology you can practice your positions in squishy anti-fatigue comfort.

If you shop online or go to any brick-and-mortar retailer looking for a yoga mat, you will be met with a ridiculous number of options. When it comes to making your yoga mat purchase, your health and the impact that your yoga mat has on the planet should be factors in your decision making process–right? Your yoga mat is as much a reflection of your social responsibility and connection with the world as it is functional.

If you are in the market for a new yoga mat, then please consider one manufactured with BLOOM Foam. Not only will you be helping to offset non-renewable petroleum use, you’ll also be assisting in solving the algae epidemic that is choking waterways worldwide. The high percentage of algae biomass in BLOOM Foam isn’t just filler; it fuses with the other foam ingredients without impacting the compression, rebound, and longevity of your mat. Best of all, BLOOM Foam has virtually no smell, so you won’t be off-put by your mat when in Downward-Facing Dog. With algae biomass content between 15-60% and a myriad of densities and thicknesses, BLOOM Foam might just be your new yoga bestie. ‪#‎opportunityforchange

This Week’s Opportunity for Change: Camping Mats

This week’s Opportunity for Change is foam camping mats. Whether you use a mat for inflatable underlayment or you’re a purest and sleep directly on one, camping mats are a versatile piece of gear in your camping arsenal.

Camping Mats

Beneficially, BLOOM is closed cell foam, so it won’t absorb moisture. Additionally, BLOOM has a great compression set so the foam won’t go flat on you after a night under the stars. Furthermore, BLOOM can be manufactured exceptionally lightweight to ensure that you’re not lugging around an extra two pounds of weight on your hike to basecamp.

Equally as important, BLOOM foam contains a large percentage of algae biomass content, and depending on the formulation, a large percentage of recycled content as well. This means that you can enjoy the great outdoors to its fullest, knowing that you are doing your part (to keep the great outdoors great) by selecting the right material for the job.‪ #‎opportunityforchange