By Mike Kaszuba
New documents show that a year after the Trump administration took office, federal regulators were hurriedly trying to keep pace with the new U.S. president and industry supporters who wanted to revive a controversial mining project near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) in northern Minnesota.
“The lifting of the [proposed withdrawal of land from mining] is a high priority for the current Administration,” Mitchell Leverette, a top official with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), wrote in a September, 2018 e-mail. “I have already received a call [and] I predict that they will want it processed sooner than later and will not want to wait until Jan. 2019.”
Thousands of pages of new records obtained by Public Record Media (PRM), a Saint Paul-based non-profit, show that the Trump administration was anxious to undo a federal government plan to withdraw a large section of land in the Superior National Forest from mining-related activities. The withdrawal had previously been announced during the last days of the Obama administration, and would initially “segregate” or set aside the land from mining until January 2019, while a possible twenty-year withdrawal was being evaluated. But the documents obtained by PRM showed that officials at the U.S. Forest Service and the BLM were being pushed to cancel the withdrawal process in its entirety as quickly as possible.
The documents also indicated that in some cases, federal regulators were eager to comply, and had moved to undo the withdrawal more rapidly than the public was aware of.
Pressure from pro-mining groups
In addition, documents show that pressure to cancel the withdrawal did not come solely from the Trump administration.
“Last month, we welcomed President Trump to Duluth, Minnesota. He clearly understood the importance of mining to our region,” wrote Nancy Norr, the board chair for Jobs for Minnesotans, in a letter to top federal officials. Jobs for Minnesotans is a pro-industry group co-founded by the building trades and the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. Norr co-authored the letter with two other pro-mining groups in July of 2018. “Yet, weeks after his visit,” Norr stated, “we have seen no formal indication from leadership within the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to rescind the mineral withdrawal proposal.”
“This is despite evidence that Minnesotans do not support the proposal,” Norr wrote to the heads of the U.S. Department of Interior and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “The economic opportunities from mining projects are significant – thousands of direct jobs, two times as many jobs in spinoff industries and billions of dollars to support K-12 education across the state.”
In reply, an undated draft letter assured Norr that federal regulators were working to conclude an environmental analysis that the Forest Service was supposed to conduct as part of the Obama administration’s proposed land withdrawal. “The BLM is working in coordination with the US Forest Service on the best approach to bring this analysis to a close and to consider options to address the 48 pending applications to develop minerals within the Superior National Forest,” the letter stated.
“I look forward to working with you as we manage our public lands for multiple uses, including environmentally-responsible mineral development,” the letter added.
(Environmental groups and media outlets in Minnesota have attempted – so far, unsuccessfully – to obtain a public copy of the environmental analysis undertaken by the Forest Service. The new documents obtained by PRM likewise did not include the environmental analysis).
The latest documents revisited a previous BLM position: that the mining would produce raw materials important to the U.S. “These strategic metals are designated as essential elements needed for aerospace and defense industries, as well as the manufacture of batteries and electronics,” a BLM “communication plan” stated.
The communication plan added that one goal would be to explain “why previous actions have been cancelled, with some discussion of our responsibility to manage resources according to Administration priorities.”
Interior Department reversed previous actions
The tone of the draft letter to Norr was significantly different from December 2016 when the U.S. Department of Interior and U.S. Department of Agriculture – in the closing days of the Obama administration – announced that two mining lease renewals for Twin Metals Minnesota were being denied, and that a large section of the Superior National Forest would be placed in “segregation” from mining for up to two years – and potentially for as long as 20 years.
“I have asked Interior to take a time out, conduct a careful environmental analysis and engage the public on whether future mining should be authorized on any federal land next door to the Boundary Waters,” said then-U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. “The Boundary Waters is a natural treasure, special to the 150,000 who canoe, fish and recreate there each year.”
But federal officials in the Trump administration would move quickly to stop the withdrawal and reverse other actions.
In December of 2017— less than a year after Trump took office – then-U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said he did not have the authority to deny the renewals of the two mining leases for Twin Metals Minnesota – known as leases MNES-1352 and MNES-1353. Five months later, the Department of Interior reinstated the leases.
A September 2018 e-mail with the heading “Status of Twin Metals” also seemed to show the BLM’s eagerness to move forward with the mining project. “What are the next steps and how quickly can we take them?” asked Kelly Orr, an advisor to the BLM’s director’s office.
And by the latter half of 2018, the formal decision to cancel the withdrawal was being cast by federal regulators as a perfunctory move.
A Department of Interior memo (noting a change in position by the U.S. Forest Service) stated that the Forest Service had determined that the proposed withdrawal of 234,328 acres in the Superior National Forest from mining activities was “no longer needed.”
In addition, a BLM briefing paper described the decision’s official announcement as a “formality.”
“Will this notice [of the decision] be controversial?” a briefing paper asked.
“The withdrawal was canceled effective upon receiving the notice from the [Forest Service] on September 6, 2018 and numerous statements were [publicly] made both for and against the withdrawal [cancellation],” the briefing paper noted. “The publication of the [official notice in the Federal Register] is a formality and not expected to garner additional attention.”
But documents obtained by PRM revealed that the proposed withdrawal had drawn significant interest.
Between January 2017 and mid-August 2017, records showed that “approximately 81,000 letters were received [by the Forest Service], along with thousands of postcards and petitions” regarding the issue. From August 2017 until February 2018, the Forest Service received an additional 1,997 letters.
Renewal of Twin Metals leases
The documents also revealed that while the letters and comments were still being filed, the BLM was taking steps that helped Twin Metals Minnesota renew leases MNES-1352 and MNES-1353.
A timeline of events for hardrock mineral leases and permits in the Superior National Forest outlined how quickly things moved in favor of Twin Metals Minnesota. Even though the BLM had notified the mining company on Dec. 15, 2017 that the lease renewals were being denied, things changed just a week later when the U.S. Department of Interior solicitor ruled that the company had a “non-discretionary right to a [lease] renewal.”
Two months after that, the BLM told the Forest Service that the lease renewal denial “was based on a legal error.” And in May of 2018, according to the timeline, the BLM sent a letter to Twin Metals Minnesota “rescinding its prior decision, reinstating the leases, and the renewal application.”
By late October 2018 – a month after the Forest Service announced its reversal – the documents showed that the company was scheduled to meet “with BLM and [the Forest Service] to present preliminary information on a possible future Mine Plan of Operations submittal in the coming year, assuming successful issuance of the lease renewals.”
The documents likewise detailed how things were moving ahead for Twin Metals Minnesota on two other fronts: preference right lease applications and prospecting permits in the Superior National Forest. The timeline noted that in early November of 2018, the BLM was scheduled “to meet with [Twin Metals Minnesota] to discuss updating their applications, request additional information, and cost recovery. Also will discuss lease terms, stipulations, royalty rates.”
BLM studied impact of withdrawal on mining
Separately, the BLM had also been conducting another study – a 48-page “Reasonably Foreseeable Development Scenario” that analyzed what might happen should the proposed withdrawal of lands in the Superior National Forest be extended into the future.
The study held out hope for Twin Metals Minnesota and other mining companies holding active leases.
A July, 2018 draft of the study concluded that there might still be mining rights available – even with a long-term withdrawal of the land from mining. “In the event of a mineral withdrawal of 234,328 acres, the X active leases would be subject to valid existing rights. Overall, it is likely that some of the leases in the proposed withdrawal area would have” valid existing rights, the draft study concluded. “Under the Proposed Action, existing active leases determined to have [valid existing rights] would still be allowed to have mining development.”
The study also attempted to cast the proposed withdrawal in larger terms – analyzing its impact on the ability of the U.S. to keep pace with its global competitors.
“I also wanted to compare US production/consumption to world production/consumption in my consideration of future needs,” the BLM’s Fred Holzel wrote in a June 2018 e-mail message. “I also started looking at past/present economic trends, geopolitical trends (for instance North Korea reportedly has large deposits of iron, gold zinc copper etc. that may become available for export/competition in the Asian markets if they have sanctions lifted).”
BLM stated that environment study would be publicly released
As federal regulators in the Trump administration moved to cancel the land withdrawal, at least one prominent mining opponent was trying to find out what was occurring.
In June of 2018 – a month after documents indicated that the BLM had reinstated Twin Metals Minnesota’s two leases — U.S. Senator Tina Smith of Minnesota tried to obtain details of what was happening within the Republican administration. “I have heard from Minnesotans who are concerned that regular process has been short-circuited and the outcome of the review process predetermined,” Smith, a Democrat, wrote to the BLM’s deputy director, Brian Steed.
“On June 20, 2018, at a round table discussion and then again at a rally in Duluth, Minnesota,” Smith added, “President Trump made comments implying that the request for a segregation and withdrawal would be rejected.”
An undated draft of a reply letter to Senator Smith from Steed stated: “We can all agree that the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is a special place that is worthy of protection.
“[In] coordination with the [Forest Service], the BLM is committed to conducting a careful review of all available information that will help inform the Department of the Interior Secretary’s decision on the [Forest Service’s] proposed withdrawal,” the draft reply stated. “We expect the environmental assessment to be completed by late this year, at which time it will be made available to the public.”
To date, the only copy of the environmental study that has been released is an almost entirely redacted document provided to the Wilderness Society in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.