The Teenage Champion

Photo: Kids for the Boundary Waters

How Joseph Goldstein, founder of Kids for the Boundary Waters, survived cancer to protect the country’s most popular and unique wilderness area.

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), America’s most visited wilderness, has a new champion. No, it’s not the Nature Conservancy or Sierra Club. It’s 19-year-old Joseph Goldstein, whose Kids for the Boundary Waters advocacy group is raising a generation of young wilderness warriors defending the region’s pristine waters, forest and wildlife against sulfide-ore copper mines. 

The BWCAW contains 1.1 million acres of pristine water and woodlands, and, with the Superior National Forest, contains 20 percent of all freshwater in the entire National Forest System. But it’s under threat from sulfide-ore copper mines proposed along its border and within its watershed.  

This toxic mining practice produces giant waste piles that, when exposed to air and water, leach sulfuric acid, heavy metals and sulfates, polluting groundwater, rivers and lakes. It’s been labeled “America’s most polluting industry” by the EPA, and contributes to more Superfund sites than any other activity. 

Enter Goldstein, who grew up paddling and fishing there but found himself dealing with toxicity in his own body. In 2015, at age 13, Goldstein was diagnosed with high-risk acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a rapidly progressing type of blood cancer. During a visit with the Make-A-Wish Foundation at the hospital, he decided to help protect his beloved Boundary Waters from sulfide-ore copper mining, a place he had canoed and fished every year since he was 6. 

While the mining hadn’t started, mineral leases had been granted and he knew the resultant pollution would damage the area forever. So, while undergoing chemotherapy, he started writing to elected officials, including then-President Obama, asking them to exclude the watershed from mining. Between treatment, he traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress and even shared a stage with former Vice President Walter Mondale to give a speech on the topic. 

And it’s worked. In 2017, the Obama administration canceled two nearby mineral leases and announced steps to exclude key parts of the watershed from new projects, initiatives supported by the Wilderness Society and National Parks Conservation Association.  

Realizing the region still isn’t permanently protected from mining, he continues speaking and writing on behalf of the Boundary Waters, and collecting signatures to show public officials that people don’t want mining to threaten its ecosystem. “Getting the word out there to as many people as possible is probably the most important thing that we can do,” he said. 

Public Lands caught up with Goldstein between classes at Vermont’s Middlebury College to shine more light on the fight to protect the Boundary Waters.

40 kids from 10 different states travel to Washington DC with to advocate for the BWCA. Photo: Kids for the Boundary Waters

PUBLIC LANDS: Why is it important to protect areas like the Boundary Waters?  

JOSEPH GOLDSTEIN: As defined by the Wilderness Act of 1964, ‘A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.’

Wilderness areas like the Boundary Waters are important for the access that they provide to some of our world’s last natural and untouched refuges. In a world which is becoming increasingly impacted (and ruined) by all manner of human activity, these refuges offer us opportunity to unwind, recharge, heal, rediscover and rest ourselves in ways that are often not possible amongst the hubbub of everyday life. The feeling of peace and belonging that comes from being in wilderness is one that’s difficult to explain, but one that anyone who has spent significant time in wilderness knows very well.

The Boundary Waters has all these characteristics and is also unique as a wilderness area. It’s one of the few wildernesses that is highly accessible to people of all ages and abilities. Many wildernesses are difficult to access for those who are young, old, disabled or who have other limitations. This isn’t the case with the Boundary Waters. It’s also unique in that it’s the largest wilderness east of the Mississippi and north of the Everglades. It provides an important access to untrammeled land for those of us who live in the eastern U.S. It’s also unique in how pristine the area is. In many parts the water is drinkable straight from the lakes without treatment.  

What can your generation do to help? 

As young people, we can’t contribute financially as much as our older, wilderness-loving counterparts, but we can contribute our time and energy. Writing to, calling and meeting with your members of Congress (and state legislators if the issue is in your state) are great ways to show decisionmakers the value of a place. Share your stories and make them feel what it’s like to visit the Boundary Waters.  

Also, educate your friends and others around you about the issue. Give presentations at school, clubs, churches, youth groups, and other places in your community. Stay up to date on the issue through the Save the Boundary Waters Campaign to know when events and public comment periods are occurring. Best yet, take a trip to the Boundary Waters so you know what we are fighting for. 

How hard has it been trying to protect it? 

Fighting to protect the Boundary Waters has been extremely trying, exhausting and disappointing at times. Fights like these take years—and often decades—to win. I have friends who have been advocating for this area since before my mom was born. At times when our progress is stalled or undone it can be extremely disappointing and seem hopeless. Dr. Martin Luther King once said, ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ Despite all the setbacks, the Boundary Waters is a worthwhile fight and one that I intend to see through to the end because I know, eventually, we will ensure its protection.   

What do you love about the Boundary Waters?

If I tried to tell you everything I love about the Boundary Waters it would take forever. I love everything about it, and I can honestly say that there is no place in the universe that I would rather be at any given moment. From the first time I visited the BWCA I was in love with it. In fact, I distinctly remember bursting into tears at the end of my first trip when my parents told me that we would not, in fact, be moving permanently to our campsite on Clear Lake. I think my favorite part about the Boundary Waters, though, or at least one of them anyway, is the feeling of connection and belonging that comes with being there. 

How rewarding is it to see your efforts helping?   

It’s extremely rewarding to see my efforts helping to protect the place I love. Every time I get to see some of my work make an impact in protecting the Boundary Waters it reminds me what I’m working toward and why I’m fighting for it.  

Any advice for other folks trying to do something similar in their communities?  

Just dive straight into it! No matter what it is that you’re trying to protect or support, everyone has a way in which they can contribute themselves and make a positive impact or change. 

More Info:  

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.