In Ely, a wilderness issue divides neighbors again
By Steve Piragis
Steve Piragis is proprietor of Piragis Northwoods Co. in Ely, Minn.
Living up north, especially in Ely, is always interesting. It seems we have learned to live together in a place where opinions on land use issues are about as polarized as those on abortion.
We had the big wilderness fights of the 1970s, complete with bumper stickers saying "Sierra Club, Kiss My Axe" and a roadblock by logging trucks of a major BWCA entry road. And, of course, the hanging in effigy of Sigurd Olson. Simmering now for years in the background have been numerous smaller debates, always pitting wilderness advocates against the motorized-use folks. Courts usually resolve these disputes after years of rankling.
A new big debate is here now. It's all about what some call copper nickel mining and some call sulfide ore mining. With the reappearance of competing bumper stickers, we'll soon see how Ely handles this one.
Nancy Piragis and I opened a little wilderness shop on Ely's Main Street in 1979. We arrived on the scene just as the new, more restrictive wilderness laws went into effect. We prospered by offering the latest in lightweight canoes and gear to people coming to Ely to paddle.
We believe that our continued success depends on the Boundary Waters remaining pristine. We worry about new mines harvesting minerals that are far more toxic to the ecosystem than the more innocuous iron ores of the past century. Large mining firms from Chile and Canada have discovered dense seams of precious minerals like palladium and platinum to go along with the copper and the nickel. Of course all are in high demand worldwide for the products we all use in our daily lives.
No doubt these mines will employ people, not in numbers like iron mines but enough to bring kids back to Ely schools and dollars to grocers, bars and clothiers. The catch is: This mining is risky. No such mine operates anywhere in the world without some deleterious effect on the local ecosystem. In our region, the rich veins of minerals lie just outside the BWCA Wilderness, close to the Kawishiwi River and directly upstream from the famous Basswood and Crooked Lakes.
I don't believe that anyone, including the mining executives, wants to damage the waters of the BWCA. I also believe that everyone, including those in the business of engineering these mines, would agree that this is not a risk-free business. We depend on the DNR, the PCA and the EPA to work with environmental engineers and mining engineers to minimize these risks or to find the risks too great to proceed.
As an outfitter who uses the BWCA, and the Kawishiwi watershed specifically, there is another risk. The paddling public is aware of what is going on. The perception in these folks' minds that the waters they so love could become acidified or polluted with heavy metals could be as harmful to our business as the reality.
Turning the Kawishiwi into a mining district could make our valued customers look elsewhere for a more pure experience. The Ely Chamber has used that theme to advertise Ely for a few years now. "The Last Great Pure Experience" may become tarnished enough to drive our customers to new paddling realms. Ely's vaunted Main Street of outfitters, mukluk shops and gourmet restaurants could start to look a bit more like the mining towns of the past.