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Trump administration curtails review of mining ban on land near Boundary Waters

WASHINGTON - The Trump administration will curtail a detailed review of how cordoning off 230,000 acres of U.S. Forest Service land in Minnesota from mining development will affect a neighboring wilderness area, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post.

The decision to convert the study launched in the final days of the Obama administration into a less-stringent environmental assessment could have major policy implications. Last January, the Interior Department blocked mineral extraction for two years in the swath of forest near Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, a glacially carved region west of Lake Superior that is speckled with lakes and popular with canoers.

At the same time last year, the federal government announced it would review whether to bar mining in the U.S. Forest Service-managed land for a longer stretch, the next 20 years. Interior officials decided not to renew existing leases for a copper and nickel mining operation there.

The action launched bureaucrats into completing hundreds of pages of environmental analysis - ultimately meant to produce a comprehensive document called an environmental impact statement.

But according to a draft of a press release obtained by The Washington Post, the Forest Service plans to announce that it will now conduct an abbreviated review of the Obama-era proposal to withdraw the land from possible mining.

The switch to a less stringent review, called an environmental assessment, comes a month after Interior chose to renew the expired mining leases held by a Chilean mining giant next to the wilderness area.

Reversing the Obama-era decision has been the subject of intense lobbying over the past year. Shortly after entering office, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke meet with proponents of Twin Metals Minnesota, a subsidiary of the Chilean firm, which belongs to the family of billionaire Andrónico Luksic, who rents a Washington, D.C., home to Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner.

While Republicans in Minnesota cheered the reversal, saying it will be a boon to the economy of a state Trump only narrowly lost in the 2016 election, environmentalists and some Minnesota Democrats, including Rep. Betty McCollum, have pressed the Trump administration to keep the withdrawal in place. They are concerned more mining could taint the waters that draw campers and drive much of the region's economy.

Boundary Waters, which abuts the federal forest where mining would take place, contains lakes and streams that annually host 100 species of migratory birds, along with an active fishery.

"Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke cares more about helping mining conglomerates than about protecting the BWCA," McCollum, who is also the top Democrat on the House Appropriations subcommittee overseeing Interior and the Forest Service, said in a statement Thursday. "This decision is yet another part of the Trump agenda to turn our public lands and natural treasures into industrial wastelands for private profit."

While the Forest Service, a division of the Agriculture Department, is tasked with completing the environmental review, the final say on whether mining should be banned rests with Zinke.

The Forest Service did not respond to a request for comment Thursday. But the drafted press release contained this statement from Connie Cummins, the Forest Service supervisor overseeing the acreage under review: "Our specialists are working hard to ensure the [review] accurately describes all the facts of the proposal, to aid the Secretary of the Interior in his decision."

Nada Culver, a senior counsel at the Wilderness Society, emphasized there should be "no shortcuts for the Boundary Waters."

"Our concern is that the Forest Service committed to completing an environmental impact statement," she said. "While we certainly agree that closing this area to mining does not have much environmental harm, we think it's important that they follow though, that all voices are heard."

Authors Information: Juliet Eilperin is The Washington Post's senior national affairs correspondent. Dino Grandoni is an energy and environmental policy reporter and the author of PowerPost's daily tipsheet on the beat, The Energy 202.