Big Business Likes to Push the Boundaries

Photo by Emily Jahn. Birch Lake, BWCAW

Photo by Emily Jahn. Birch Lake, BWCAW

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, a vast system of lakes and rivers in Northern Minnesota, sees thousands of visitors every year for its fishing, canoeing and camping, making it one of America’s most popular wilderness destinations. I spent two summers there as a guide, leading 5-10 day treks through around 1,200 miles of water and 1.1 million acres of forest filled with black bears, moose, osprey, eagles, beavers, loons and wolves. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. The park has some of the cleanest water in the world, so clear that on a good day you can see twenty feet down and watch northern pike flash under your canoe. For all it has to offer to visitors, its future is uncertain, as with many  of America’s dwindling wild places.

A looming threat to the park is a proposal to mine for sulfide ores just outside the Boundary Waters along the South Kawishwi River, which feeds into the park. Andrónico Luksic, one of the owners of Antofagasta Minerals, the Chilean company that will profit immensely from the project, is also the Washington DC landlord of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner. Coincidentally, the Trump administration has chosen to renew two mining leases on the edge of the park. Copper, nickel and other metals would be extracted from the ore while the sulfuric acid byproduct of this type of mining would poison the entire water system, threatening not only the Boundary Waters, but also the nearby Voyageurs National Park and the Quetico Provincial Park in Ontario if the mines are developed.

Water doesn’t recognize national park boundaries. Allowing this type of mining just outside the park would be extremely damaging, and it’s not the only situation of its kind.

Chaco Canyon National Historical Park is next in line to be another victim of fracking in Northwestern New Mexico. Chaco Canyon is on the UNESCO World Heritage List for its numerous sacred and ceremonial Native American historical sites, such as Pueblo Bonito, a once thriving Native American dwelling place. These sites, however, are now being threatened by corporations in search of natural gas and oil as well as a proposed crude oil pipeline.

Fracking is an extremely damaging technique for extracting natural gas which pollutes freshwater with toxic chemicals. The poisoned water is forced underground to expel natural gas lodged in shale deposits in a process known to cause earthquakes, posing a threat to the Native American sites in Chaco Canyon, should such natural gas companies be allowed to proceed.

Fracking in itself is terribly destructive, but fracking outside national heritage sites is even more troubling. Keeping these places pristine often extends outside their boundaries. Just because an area is designated as wilderness (as in the case of the Boundary Waters), or a national heritage site like Chaco Canyon, it doesn’t necessarily mean these places are safe from exploitation and damage. Yes, we all like copper to keep our cell phones running and oil to keep our cars going. And we like these things to be affordable. It’s easy, with the overabundance of issues clamoring for our attention these days, to let national parks fall by the wayside. But what America’s wilderness represents is irreplaceable.

I spent countless starry nights in the Boundary Waters, waking up to a spectacular sunrise over a misty lake, still as glass. Big business will always be pushing their boundaries, but these places are worth preserving in a world where natural beauty is increasingly hard to come by.