Interior emails tied to Boundary Waters spark questions

By Hannah Northey | 10/25/2023 01:48 PM EDT

A conservative-leaning watchdog group is probing whether top Interior officials and an environmental group met to discuss mining issues tied to active litigation without the Justice Department present.

A sign for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness next to a lake.

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in the Superior National Forest in Minnesota. Forest Service/Interior Department/Flickr

The Interior Department’s plans for top staffers to meet environmentalists in 2021 and discuss protections for Minnesota’s pristine Boundary Waters from a controversial mining project — an issue the green group had already sued over — is attracting fresh scrutiny from conservative watchdogs.

Interior Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau and other agency officials planned to meet with representatives of the Wilderness Society to talk about potential sulfur-ore copper mining near the Boundary Waters, according to emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and shared with E&E News.

At the time, the Wilderness Society and other environmental groups had an active lawsuit against Interior for the decision during the Trump administration to renew hardrock mining leases for Twin Metals Minnesota, which is pushing to mine for copper and nickel near Boundary Waters.


Pete McGinnis, a spokesperson for the Functional Government Initiative, or FGI, which obtained the documents, said it’s a concern that the various meetings weren’t publicly noticed and it appears Interior was planning to discuss a controversial matter in litigation without the Justice Department present.

McGinnis noted Interior has since taken steps to block mining near the Boundary Waters region, including canceling the company’s leases and withdrawing more than 225,000 acres in the Superior National Forest from mining and geothermal leasing for an additional two decades.

“They appear to be throwing caution to the wind to advance their preferred policy position and those of their special interest friend,” said McGinnis.

FGI, a conservative-leaning group that launched last year and is led by Director Chris Stanley, a former Trump appointee at the U.S. Census Bureau, has filed dozens of FOIA requests and subsequent lawsuits, many targeting the Biden administration and federal agencies.

When asked about the emails, Interior declined to comment. Neither Interior nor the Wilderness Society would address if the meetings took place. No such meetings appeared on Beaudreau’s calendar.

The emails show Interior officials and environmental groups were aware of and discussed the sensitivities around the legal and policy meetings being planned.

In a July 19, 2021, email, Natalie Landreth, the Interior deputy solicitor for land and resources, told Alison Flint, a senior legal director at the Wilderness Society, that one meeting needed to be “lawyers only” and that she assumed it would focus on litigation.

According to the emails, a separate “policy” meeting with Beaudreau, Interior deputy chief of staff for policy Kate Kelly, and Drew McConville, then-senior managing director for government relations with the Wilderness Society Action Fund, was also taking shape. McConville, now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, referred all questions to the Wilderness Society.

In addition to the meeting involving Beaudreau, Flint told Landreth that she wanted to meet with her to “talk more in the weeds from my in-house counsel perspective about some of the legal & policy pathways for protecting the Boundary Waters watershed.” Flint added, “I do not intend to discuss any specific litigation — knowing that we would both need litigating counsel available for that discussion.” Flint also offered to attend the meeting with Beaudreau should there be any “in-the-weeds questions.”

Pat Parenteau, an emeritus professor at Vermont Law and Graduate School who formerly served as a lawyer for EPA, questioned why the Interior’s Office of the Solicitor set up a meeting between senior departmental officials and the main party to litigation to discuss “policy” bearing on the subject matter of a lawsuit without apparently notifying the Justice Department.

“As a former, senior government lawyer, in situations like this where there’s a request to meet with a party that’s in litigation against the government, the protocol is to immediately notify the Department of Justice,” said Parenteau.

DOJ provides instructions around whether an agency should conduct specific meetings, and whether its lawyers should be present, he said. That’s important, Parenteau added, so agencies don’t discuss subject matter at the heart of a lawsuit, not just the legal arguments or defenses. The emails do not show Interior reached out to DOJ, and the agency did not answer a question about if that kind of outreach occurred.

Without knowing if the meetings took place, Parenteau said the public is left guessing at how the agency handled the discussion. “In this case, only by inference, you have to say, ‘Yeah, that was the point of the meeting, to get rid of these leases,’” he said.

Aaron Mintzes, the senior policy counsel for conservation group Earthworks, said the emails are not out of the ordinary and instead show people expressing their First Amendment rights to petition the federal government for redress of grievances.

“Of course, the government may wish to have their lawyers (DOJ or the Solicitor’s office) present when discussing litigation, sometimes in order to resolve disputes,” said Mintzes. “Yet discussing policy, there’s nothing odd about agency officials meeting with stakeholders — quite the opposite — Americans want our government to be responsive to the interests of the people.”

The Wilderness Society in an email insisted its actions were ethically sound.

Marco De Leon, a spokesperson for the environmental group, said the Wilderness Society has for more than a decade met with dozens of officials across three administrations about the need for permanent protections for the Boundary Waters watershed, consistent with the group’s longstanding advocacy on the issue.

“We are laser clear on how to approach our multifaceted advocacy, which often includes active litigation and policy advocacy concurrently, in compliance with all relevant rules and standards,” said De Leon. “We do not discuss active litigation without our attorneys who represent us present and did not in this case.”

‘Lawyers only’

In May 2020, the Wilderness Society and a host of canoe outfitters and environmental groups, including Earthjustice and Center for Biological Diversity, sued then-Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, the Forest Service and the Department of Agriculture.

At the time, the groups argued that the Bureau of Land Management under the Trump administration failed to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act when it renewed two hardrock mining leases to Twin Metals Minnesota in an area adjacent to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Twin Metals, a subsidiary of Chilean mining giant Antofagasta PLC, holds leases covering 4,865 acres near Ely, Minn.

In a disclosure form contained in the emails, Flint with the Wilderness Society sought a meeting on July 20, 2021, with Landreth, the deputy solicitor, for a “review of policy decisions regarding sulfide-ore copper mining in the Rainy River Watershed of the Superior National Forest.”

In response to a question probing whether the meeting would involve litigation, a permit, grant or contract, Flint responded: “Policy decisions could impact mineral leases and prospecting permits in the Rainy River Watershed.”

In a July 19, 2021, email, Landreth told Flint, McConville with the Wilderness Society and Mariagrazia Caminiti, an executive assistant in the agency’s solicitor’s office, their meeting should be “lawyers only.” Landreth also said “policy meetings re Twin Metals should be with Kate and Tommy” and noted that such a meeting was scheduled for July 20, 2021, the following day.

In February 2022, the Wilderness Society and other groups dropped their lawsuit. A month prior, the Biden administration canceled the two leases, arguing that the Trump administration had made legal errors in validating the leases.

“After a careful legal review, we found the leases were improperly renewed in violation of applicable statutes and regulations, and we are taking action to cancel them,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a statement at the time.

Parenteau said it’s likely the Twin Metals leases were at the heart of both the policy and legal discussions, and DOJ — not just the solicitor’s office — should have been involved.

“The real question is, are you engaged in discussions that could lead to a settlement of the lawsuit without DOJ there or changes in the agency’s position without DOJ being there,” said Parenteau. “It’s pretty basic.”