A few weeks ago, I participated in my first canoe race, on the Snake River near Mora, MN. I borrowed a friend’s GoPro video camera to play with, and ended up making this short video:
The Snake River Canoe Race is about 14 miles long and has been happening for 32 years. It includes about 175 canoes ranging from hardcore racers who do the trip in less than two hours, to folks out for a good time, like my friend Slim and me.
You can read a bit more about the race and our experience at St. Croix 360. Bottom line is, I thought it was a blast and plan to do it again next May.
Polluted stream flowing into the St. Croix River from a frac sand mine
About a month ago, I was sent a photo of a stream flowing into the St. Croix near Grantsburg, Wisconsin. The stream was muddy with some sort of unnatural sediment. A hiker had taken the photo and someone forwarded it to me because of my website, St. Croix 360, and Facebook page devoted to the St. Croix River.
The picture was alarming, but I didn’t really know what to make of it. Very busy with life and work, I couldn’t look into the matter, and I didn’t just want to throw inflammatory photos out to the public without doing some research. But it sure did make me wonder.
The story breaks
Then, last week, the Country Messenger newspaper published a story featuring the same photo, and having asked some of the questions that needed asking. A dam had burst at a sand mine just upstream, and the waste sand had been flowing into the stream and into the river for at least a few days. The mining company had not even noticed the burst and authorities were unaware until the photographer reported it.
The sand mine is a special one — opened up just last July, it is extracting a type of silica sand used in hydraulic fracturing for natural gas (“fracking”). The Mississippi River regions in Minnesota and Wisconsin have been struggling with rapid growth of this mining industry the past couple years. As fracking has taken off, demand for the sand has risen. There has been much concern about the issue, but the environmental impacts have been a little vague.
Frac sand mine near Grantsburg (Russ Hanson photo)
Once I had read the Messenger‘s story, I quickly posted on St. Croix 360, including excerpts from the article, and adding a map of the site, as well as another photo sent to me in April by a concerned citizen who had visited the sand mine and expressed worries about its location just a couple hundred yards from the river.
Once I posted the story late Wednesday, I tweeted out the link. Thursday morning, I shared it with the 20,000 Facebook fans of the river. I know with some certainty that it was Twitter that brought it to the attention of a reporter at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, and I am pretty sure it’s how Minnesota Public Radio News caught wind of it, too.
On Friday, both of the above media outlets ran articles (here’s the Pioneer Press’s). The MPR piece was in turn picked up the Associated Press and published widely across the region. Both stories went deeper than the Country Messenger or I had gone, and added important details.
Today, I shared the St. Croix 360 article with the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, who posted it on their Facebook page. For organizations like the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, this incident is another sign of Governor Scott Walker’s failure to protect the environment. The DNR chief he appointed is a long-time critic of the agency, and enforcement of environmental laws has been lax since he took office.
Record level of interest
The fish the mine accident beat
I launched St. Croix 360 last July 1. A few days later, I posted a couple photos of a musky my buddy Gabe caught while we were canoeing. Until last week, those photos had reigned as the single highest traffic day in the history of the site.
When I shared the sand mine article on Facebook on Thursday, that day quickly surpassed the musky photos. Actually, nearly twice as many people read the sand mine article as the musky post.
Today, when the League of Conservation Voters shared the article, the site experienced its second-biggest day, also surpassing the musky photos. On the League’s Facebook page, it racked up 207 “likes” and 152 shares. On St. Croix 360, the article has been “liked” almost 1,000 times now.
This is interesting, because for a long time I had figured there was just nothing to draw people like pictures of big toothy fish. I was wrong, and I’m glad. While I’ll still think of how I might weave fishing into conservation stories, I understand better than ever the power of investigative journalism.
I simply wish I could have followed up on these photos the day I received them, which was before the county and DNR had been notified and visited the mine, and before the issue had been addressed.
Photo of site where the containment dam burst (Wisconsin DNR photo)
One important connection I saw in the story right away was that the operator of the frac sand mine was Tiller Corp., the same company behind a controversial gravel mine proposal adjacent to the St. Croix River in Scandia, Minnesota.
It just so happens that comments on that mine proposal’s draft Environmental Impact Statement were due on Friday.
Many people in Scandia have been protesting the mine proposal there for at least a couple years. I recently published a guest post on St. Croix 360 by Scandia writer and poet Laurie Allman, outlining concerns about the mine and encouraging people to submit their own comments to the city. (That article is notable for receiving the most comments of anything else I’ve published on St. Croix 360.)
What it all means
For the river, it’s nothing good. In comment threads on the St. Croix River Facebook page, a few people have stated they don’t see what the big deal is, a little sand is nothing to worry about. It just so happens that my uncle, who works for the Wisconsin DNR, feels different:
So does the National Park Service environmental director at the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway:
“We don’t yet know site specific impacts, but in general, sediment has an impact on the river bottom which cumulatively impacts the sediment of the river and could affect fish spawning and mussels, and things like that,” Medland said.
Site where polluted stream flows into the St. Croix River (Wisconsin DNR photo)
Interestingly enough, that musky which was so popular on St. Croix 360 last July was caught maybe a mile from the site where the stream dumps into the river. We put it back after snapping a few photos. It’s what is right for the river, and why not let somebody else catch it too? Unfortunately, it seems Tiller Corp.’s talk about protecting the resource next door to their mine is not much more than talk.
I can’t help being also interested in how this story developed from coverage in a small town paper to hitting the wires just three days later. A lot of people had a hand in that, from the hiker who thankfully documented and reported the incident to the good reporters who made the phone calls and asked the questions that needed answering.
My role was to amplify the issue, via St. Croix 360, Facebook and Twitter. That got the word out to the public, who have a role in deciding how much of this sand mining they want, and where it is and is not appropriate to happen. And it got it to journalists who could bring depth of reporting and breadth of distribution.
The million dollar question is about dollars. In light of Walker’s extreme pro-business and anti-environment record, will Tiller Corp. receive a “good, swift slap on the wrist” (as one commenter on Facebook said)? Or might this incident be the nail in the coffin for the company’s proposal in Scandia? (The inter-state but intra-watershed angle is fascinating to me, too, but I won’t get started on that).
This is also a story of journalism and conservation today. I’m usually skeptical of “raising awareness” unless it’s part of a broader strategy. In this case, with the implications for a hot-button issue like fracking and frac sand mining, for the connection to the Scandia mine, and to Wisconsin’s governor recall election in a few weeks, it’s amazing to think about the real impact of a website, a Facebook page and a Twitter account.
IMBA Trail Solutions pro builder Stephen Mullins (center) working with CoGGs members at Sprirt Mountain (Photo courtesy Hansi Johnson)
The people of Duluth must have been pretty nice this year. Word came just before Christmas that the Cyclists of Gitchee-Gumee Shores (COGGS) have received a $250,000 grant from a Legacy Amendment fund to jump start development of a new 20-mile mountain biking trail system right in the heart of the city.
The Duluth Traverse will ultimately span the port town from Spirit Mountain to Amity Creek, from the bluffs of the St. Louis River valley to the crashing waves of Lake Superior. When completed, it will be the longest urban singletrack trail system in the nation, connecting several parks to each other which feature their own trail systems.
The Legacy grant comes only after five years of effort. And there are many years ahead and much work to do; this is not a project for the impatient or the lazy. Hansi Johnson is neither of those. One just has to follow his blog to see that (he recently captured several striking photos of riding a extra-fat tired Surly Pug bicycle on the ice of a St. Louis River reservoir).
The Midwest Regional Director for the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) has been by all accounts essential to the project’s success so far. Though Johnson lives outside Duluth, he travels the region helping local cycling groups develop trails in their communities. The Traverse will be in his backyard when complete. Johnson shared the news by noting this is about more than just a new riding opportunity:
It is great to see that off road cycling has become a movement about creating better communities, we have stepped out from singly pushing the “trail” and are now pushing “Trails” plural and how they can create positive lifestyles and change lives.
That might seem like lofty description of some narrow paths through the woods, but the plan is ambitious. The COGGS’ website describes a trail network that will improve opportunities to get out in the woods not just for bikers, but hikers, runners, skiers, snowshoers, and even equestrians:
This trail system will feature trail hubs with more extensive trail networks in Lester Park, Hartley Park, Piedmont-Brewer Park, Spirit Mountain and Mission Creek and then have trails connecting them all together. Our goal for this system is to create the first 100+ mile system of singletrack all within an urban environment. This will connect communities together via natural surface trails and also create an environment where everyone has trail access within a short distance of their home that they can walk, run or bike on.
It’s easy to see why so many groups and individuals would come together around the vision. In any good partnership, you do more together than what you can do alone, and this one is doing a lot. In addition to Johnson and his colleagues at IMBA and COGGS and its volunteers, key supporters of the project include the city of Duluth, notably its mayor Don Ness, and other trail groups in the city, representing the hikers, skiers, birders and average citizens who want more places to get out in the woods.
COGGS members building a technical section of trail in Piedmont Park (Photo courtesy Hansi Johnson)
The coalition has racked up success before this grant. Johnson told me in an email that COGGS has put vast amounts of volunteers hours into the city’s park restoring and closing old trails, as well as investing grant dollars in infrastructure improvements. This has taken a strain off the parks budget, while still improving the parks. This fall, they strongly supported a Parks and Libraries levy that was approved by voters on Election Day.
Mayor Ness recently proclaimed that he wants Duluth to be the “premier trail city in North America.” This isn’t just because there are a lot of mountain bikers or hikers in the town, but because the trail systems are seen as essential to the quality of life the city can offer, from health benefits to recreation opportunities to tourism dollars.
COGGS chairman Adam Sundberg said in a recent article in Northern Wilds that he sees the system having potential as a riding destination up there with other regional stars, reputation as a good place to live and raise a family: “We can have riding every bit as good as Rapid City, CAMBA [the Chequamegon area], UP of Michigan, but we have a town that is much more attractive for arts, culture, kids’ activities, shopping.”
A billboard advertising the Cuyuna trail system (Photo courtesy Hansi Johnson)
Hopes are high for the Duluth Traverse. Right now, there is a map, trails scattered around the city, a bunch of dedicated folks, and now, some money to get things started, thanks to the voters and taxpayers of Minnesota. The entire system should cost about $1 million ultimately.
With the new funds, the partners will develop an implementation plan and begin work on the trail system at Lester Park. After that they will work on connector sections which will link trail networks to each other. Johnson wrote in an email that the grant will get things “rolling.”
In Sunday’s newspaper, Josephine Marcotty offered a well-rounded look at controversial new mining proposals in northeastern Minnesota, much of it at the doorstep of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. I have been reading, talking, and writing about sulfide mining for three-and-a-half years now. I am convinced that the extraction of copper, nickel and other metals in the Arrowhead would forever harm large swaths of our state. And the money and minerals do not outweigh that risk.
In her article, Marcotty said Minnesota is facing “its biggest environmental decision in a generation: Whether to open its arms to hard-rock mining, an industry that could bring thousands of jobs — and a record of environmental calamities — to the wildest and most beautiful corner of the state.”
This is indeed a decision for all Minnesotans to make. The Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness has been working for years to educate citizens, to raise awareness of what is proposed and what it could mean for Minnesota’s clean water, and to ensure we act as the good stewards of our land and water that previous generations did. This is necessary so our kids and grandkids will be able to drink from the lake on BWCAW trips, to eat fresh-caught fish, and to wander trackless woods.
This past weekend, the Friends met with officials from Twin Metals along Highway 1, near the Kawishiwi River and Birch Lake, to see where the company — a partnership between junior mining company Duluth Metals and Chilean mining giant Antofagasta — is doing exploratory drilling and to learn more about their plans. The group spent a couple hours touring the woods, talking and asking a lot of questions.
The Twin Metals employees said they intend to build a mine that will not pollute. They didn’t try to convince the Friends representatives in two short hours to forget their concerns, but rather listened and promised continued dialogue. They also spoke at length of “new, modern technology” and a commitment to “doing it right.” They believe they can do this without harming some of our state’s most cherished natural places.
The fact is that nobody opens up a mine planning to pollute. But yet it happens again and again. A 2006 study of such mines found that at least 85 percent of mines in wet environments like Minnesota caused unanticipated pollution.
Copper and nickel are sold on global markets at global prices. Unfortunately, in other countries, there are few environmental protections. This means metals can be mined cheaply, and sold cheaply. Those metals are what Twin Metals, PolyMet and others would have to compete with if they mine in Minnesota. Doing it right affects the bottom line, and digging deep below the earth to extract widely-scattered minerals is expensive in the first place. Preventing pollution carries price tags.
Twin Metals wants to mine in the forests of Stony River Township, near Ely. Something happened in the township two weeks ago that didn’t get much notice. Maybe it was overshadowed by the Pagami Creek Fire news, or maybe the weight of the event just didn’t register. The township’s board of supervisors unanimously passed a resolution calling on Minnesota to enact a moratorium on sulfide mining, and short of that, not allow any mining in the township.
Residents of the township have been hearing from the company and other mining proponents for years and after much consideration, decided they wanted to keep their community the way it is, a rural lake district, not one overrun by trucks and blasting and pollution. In a Duluth News-Tribune article about the resolution (subscription required), one of the supervisors who voted for it said it simply and said it best, “We’ve got clean water and a healthy forest and we want to keep it that way.”
The resolution is non-binding. State and federal governments will ultimately decide whether or not Twin Metals ever mines. But the supervisors of Stony River Township, and the community members who encouraged the resolution, have given an answer to this great environmental decision our state faces: Clean water will always be more valuable than any precious metal.
A week ago, I was waking up at my campsite on Lake Insula, in the Boundary Waters. It was going to be another beautiful day, the morning light seemingly soft and quiet. I made coffee and enjoyed the view west across the bay, where an old white pine stood tall over blowdown forest — mostly scrubby balsam and birch. Several miles behind the pine, a column of smoke rose from the horizon.
The next morning, the campsite was smoky. It wasn’t unbearable, but made for a scratchy throat. I wondered if we would have to move if the smoke didn’t lift. But by noon, the column was not stretched out toward us, but rose straight into the sky. A big stormlike cloud flowed east over our heads.
That evening, we went out fishing on the lake and watched the sun set behind the plume. I snapped a photo of my friend Wade, in the bow of the canoe, starting at the smoke. I did not imagine it would grace the front page of the Star Tribune just a couple days later.
On Monday, after we had gotten out of the woods, I posted a photo slideshow of the trip on YouTube. It has now been watched more than 2,800 times. The photos literally spread like wildfire as the Pagami Creek Fire blew up from 1,000 acres to 4,500 to 11,000 to suddenly 60,000 and then 100,000 acres.
Ultimately, in addition to the Star Tribune, the pictures showed up on MPR’s homepage, on KARE 11′s broadcasts, on KTTC in Rochester, and even the Door County Daily News, where smoke from the fire was noticeable hundreds of miles away.
Now, the fire has moved on and so has the attention. Reporters have flocked to the north woods and there is a considerable amount of on-the-ground reporting being done. I have told my story enough times, anyway.
This fire has grabbed the attention of the whole state, it seems. The Boundary Waters is like nowhere else in Minnesota, nor even the country or the world. And now 10 percent of it has burned.
As far as I can tell from the fire progression maps, it looks like that whole half of the lake where we were camped for three nights was burned over a day or two after we left. A group of rangers out checking for visitors got caught out on the lake when the fire hit and had what sounds like a truly harrowing experience as the fire whipped up a windstorm and forced them to take cover under their fire shelters on a rocky island in the middle of the lake for an hour as hot embers and ash rained down on them. I wonder if that that centuries-old pine across from our campsite on Insula still stands.
This week, I have also thought a lot about the people who live at the edge of the Boundary Waters. I know what the smoke from just 4,500 acres looked like. It appears on the horizon like a mythical creature, out-of-control and possessing incredible destructive power. It is a force like an earthquake or a hurricane and we feel small against it.
The past couple days have been cool and calm, and there has even been some rain and snow, which has given firefighters a chance to regroup and bring in reinforcements. But the next couple days are forecast to be warmer and windier again.
While we were camped on Insula last week, a bald eagle frequently perched in a tree on an island across from us. It spent long hours there watching the lake. As we paddled across the lake on our way out, the eagle flew above us and past us and into the big white pine we had been admiring. I figure its nest was there. I wonder if it still is.
If the fire flares up again, though, I hope it is only white pines and eagle’s nests that suffer, not humans or homes. The boreal forest is meant to burn sometimes; our habitations are simply not.
I have published two volumes of a chapbook titled "Esker." The most recent volume, "Nowhere Else But Here," was released in January 2010. It features writings from every day of June 2009 in an old Japanese form called haibun.