The U.S. Forest Service said Friday it's downgrading an environmental review of a proposal to withdraw certain national forest land in Minnesota from minerals exploration for up to 20 years, possibly easing the path for eventual copper-nickel mining near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
The roughly 234,000 acres of Superior National Forest land includes a site where Twin Metals Minnesota wants to mine for copper and nickel. The proposed mine has pitted supporters who say it would bring hundreds of badly needed mining jobs against environmentalists and others who fear pollution of a pristine area and tourism draw.
The Forest Service said it will do an environmental assessment rather than a more rigorous environmental impact statement — a change from plans announced a year ago. The agency explained the change by saying no significant environmental impacts had been identified during what's called a public scoping period.
The Twin Metals project can't move forward without leases for the land near Ely, in northeastern Minnesota. President Barack Obama's administration declined to renew those leases shortly before he left office, citing the potential harm to the Boundary Waters.
But President Donald Trump's administration resurrected the project in December when a top Interior Department attorney concluded the Bureau of Land Management had erred when it determined it had the power to grant or deny the leases. That meant the BLM and Forest Service had to reconsider Twin Metals' renewal application.
Gov. Mark Dayton, who opposes the mine, sharply criticized the reduced environmental review in a statement that highlighted Twin Metals' foreign corporate parent, Antofagasta.
"It's terrible that the Trump Administration is putting the financial interests of the Chilean mining conglomerate, Antofagasta, ahead of protecting the Boundary Waters Canoe Area for generations of Minnesotans and other Americans," he said.
The Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters said the change means less opportunity for public input and rigorous scientific analysis.
"There's no room for shortcuts when it comes to the Boundary Waters," campaign manager Doug Niemela said. "All Americans, no matter how they feel about this issue, deserve the most thorough and rigorous analysis possible to determine the risks of sulfide-ore copper mining near the Boundary Waters."
A spokesman for Twin Metals referred a request for comment to Mining Minnesota, an industry group. Mining Minnesota spokesman Frank Ongaro called the Forest Service decision a common-sense move. Ongaro said the most detailed environmental review can be done when a specific project is before regulators.
Rep. Rick Nolan, a Democrat who represents northeast Minnesota, agreed.
"This decision ... is the sensible and correct one, based on facts and science," Nolan said in a statement. He said any mining project would still have to go through "a rigorous, extensive environmental review process at both the state and federal level."