Threatening Eden: the upper St. Louis River

Most folks traveling to the North Shore know the St. Louis River as a rocky, boisterous waterway, plunging over boulders and ledges, flowing under Interstate 35 on its way to Lake Superior. This lower portion is protected by Jay Cooke State Park.

But the upper St. Louis winds its way through meadows and bogs, northwest of Duluth. Its undeveloped watershed is pristine, dotted with dark spruce spires and magnificent white pines. Beginning in Seven Beaver Lake in far eastern St. Louis County, the river counterintuitively flows west, away from Lake Superior, before bending to the south and beginning its descent, bordering Sak-Zim bog, to the big lake. As I finished the manuscript of “Portage,” a number of people mentioned the upper St. Louis as one of their favorite canoeing rivers. We were unable to paddle the river before the manuscript was due, but launched into its clear waters this August, putting in at Forbes Access, about 45 minutes drive from Duluth.

The stream has a distinctly boreal feel. Black spruce grow thickly on its banks. Somehow, sizable pines escaped the ax, rising with craggy beauty above the spruce. Flocks of waxwings trilled and in mid-August we encountered bands of immature warblers foraging in the understory.

The St. Louis is a lovely river and so I was distressed to learn that the environmental group America Rivers listed it as one of the 10 most-endangered rivers in the United States this year. The proposed Poly-Met copper-nickel mine would operate within its upper watershed and another dozen or so companies are drilling boreholes, and analyzing core samples, waiting for the state to permit Poly-Met and ready to file their own petitions to mine.

Nine hundred acres of wetlands in the St. Louis River’s watershed will be destroyed by the Poly-Met mine. The company is required to restore wetlands to compensate, but these do not have to be in the same watershed. As worrisome is the potential for contamination of the pretty river and Lake Superior. There has never been a mining operation of this kind that has not polluted adjacent water.

Minnesota has intimate experience with the large-scale destruction of mining and the ephemerality of the jobs it offers. And yet, our DNR and elected officials seem willing, even eager, to repeat the cycle with copper-nickel mining. Will we let them?

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