In the fall of 2014, 13-year-old Joseph Goldstein was diagnosed with high-risk acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Not long after, the Make a Wish Foundation told him he could meet his favorite celebrity, go to Disney World, or even have a pony. After careful consideration, he made a wish to save the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) from contamination by a copper mine proposed in its watershed.
Goldstein had fallen in love with the BWCA—more than 1 million acres of forests, glacial lakes, and streams in northern Minnesota—on his first visit when he was 6 years old, marveling at the natural beauty and feeling unbound in the wilderness. His family returned for annual trips, which provided a touchstone during his cancer treatment. When the chemo knocked him out and made him want to give up, thoughts of paddling on the pristine lakes restored him.
“The Boundary Waters has formed who I am, was a good teacher to me, and helped me through personal struggles,” says Goldstein, who is now a 17-year-old high school senior and A-student. He lives on a hobby farm outside Springfield, Illinois, with his three younger brothers and their parents, both physicians, and wants to be a physician himself one day.
However, Goldstein’s dream was too politically charged for Make a Wish to grant. He realized he had to work, not just wish, for what he wanted. Over the next three-and-a-half years, when his chemo treatment allowed for it, he wrote letters, gave speeches, blogged, and made several trips to Washington, D.C. He implored policymakers to let science, rather than corporate interests, determine whether to allow a copper mining process that could leech sulfuric acid into the Boundary Waters.
The Obama Administration had called for a 20-year mining moratorium in Superior National Forest, which borders the BWCA, and ordered a two-year scientific study on the potential impact of mining on the area. Federal agencies under President Trump canceled the study and reinstated expired leases held by Twin Metals, the company proposing the copper mine.
Nearing the end of his treatment in February 2018, Goldstein broadened his efforts by recruiting other young people from around the country and formed Kids for the Boundary Waters, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the wilderness and promoting youth advocacy. “Over the past year it has become increasingly clear to me that saving the BWCA is most especially about us kids who will be inheriting whatever mess gets left behind,” Goldstein writes on his blog. “This is our future—our water, our public lands, our resources, our health, our country—that is at stake.”
He officially launched the organization in June, and, a month later, they made themselves heard. Goldstein and his Kids board members wrote to Congress; they opposed restricting the executive branch’s protection of the Superior National Forest for 20 years, proposed in an amendment to the 2019 Interior appropriations bill. Minnesota Rep. Betty McCollum read aloud from their letters on the House floor, and the amendment was withdrawn. “It was pretty cool to be able to see how big of an impact we can have,” Goldstein says. “It was our first official victory on behalf of the Boundary Waters.”
In November, he and 40 fellow Kids for the Boundary Waters from around the country traveled to Washington, D.C. Over three days, they had 35 meetings with lawmakers like Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Sen. Tina Smith, who were supportive. In a meeting with David Bernhardt, then deputy secretary (current acting secretary) of the Interior, several of the teens credited the Boundary Waters with helping them heal from various conditions similar to Goldstein’s. His response? Basically, according to Goldstein, “That’s nice. Thanks for sharing. We have some cookies for you in the lobby.”
They were not deterred. “Cancer is a surprisingly good teacher,” says Goldstein, whose leukemia is in remission. “Most importantly, it trains you to fight like hell for the things that matter.”
He vows to fight like hell this year, when Twin Metals is expected to release its mine plan and the federal Bureau of Land Management could reinstate the company’s leases.
This summer, Goldstein aims to double the number of young people headed to the nation’s capital. He remains hopeful that they will help stop mining by influencing policymakers and convincing the Bureau of Land Management to not renew Twin Metals’ leases and to reinstate the impact study and moratorium. “This fight has gone on for many years, and it’s going to go on for many more, but ultimately I think we’re going to win it,” he says. “It’s important we preserve the Boundary Waters for all of us who have experienced it and for those who have yet to experience it.”
Learn more about Kids for the Boundary Waters at kidsfortheboundarywaters.org
Top BWCA Spots
Joseph Goldstein has visited the BWCA 20-plus times. Among his favorite places:
- Lac La Croix
Where he watched a meteor shower one night. “I had never seen shooting stars like that.”
- Fat Lake
Where he rescued a tree growing out of a crevice in a granite slab that had fallen down. He replanted it at his family’s campsite. “I want to go back to check on it.”
- Iron Lake
Where he caught the largest fish of his life, a 36-inch Northern. “I was reeling it in when it jumped out of the water near my dad’s face. He jumped and nearly tipped the canoe.”