To drive the Iron Range spine of Highway 169 is to see a sleeping giant not unlike the region’s namesake, Missabe — the Dakota and Ojibwe “big man” resting on the divide between all that is north and south. Missabe’s body is not like that of a man. Its fluids are water. Its bones are timbers. Its tissues are minerals. Its blood, the people who live here. But like a human, in order to wake up, the blood of the giant Missabe must pump faster; its temperature must rise.
Ely-area resident Joe Baltich penned a barbed yet thought-provoking op-ed in the Star Tribune last week entitled, “Mining opponents: You think you know Ely’s needs?” It effectively captured the feelings of many Iron Rangers. We know we need more jobs, more prosperity in our communities; that much is evident. The idea of mining nonferrous minerals like copper and nickel on the East Range came along, promising jobs, tax revenue and growth. The idea has been slowed, however, by a corporate financing system, regulatory system and protest movement dominated by people who live outside of the region.
There is no greater enemy in Iron Range culture than outside forces: be it in the form of a distant robber baron, a disengaged politician or, in this case, environmentalists who live in the Twin Cities. This cultural trait transcends matters like party affiliation, science, or sometimes even logic. The Range operates from the gut, with heart, fists and brains to follow (in that order).
“This is 2013, not the Dark Ages. The locals actually like being here far more than you do. We’ve committed to a lifetime of eking out a living when we could have just as easily moved to some metro area for better pay.
“Your signing a petition against our support of the project says to me that you somehow know more about and have greater concern for our back yard, which you visit once a year. That’s shortsighted on your part, and rather insulting to the people who mined the very same rock for 88 years before the inception of the BWCA in 1964, a development based upon the existence of pristine waters after all that virtually unregulated mining.
“Hopefully, this will enlighten you somewhat. I’m not expecting much, given the Twin Cities crowd. It’s always about their own good time.”
As you’d expect, Baltich’s piece exposes old emotions and cultural fault lines — ones that simply must be addressed for us to have a productive conversation on this matter. To summarize, Baltich points out the decline in Ely’s population, economy and birth rates since the early 1970s. Many downtown businesses are for sale, with no buyers evident. Fewer people are camping in the BWCA, so businesses oriented around serving them are struggling as well (the internet and kids these days, and such). Regulations in the BWCA keep out an aging population that wants to run motors, sleep in campers and ride four-wheelers.
While there is a cantankerous, confrontational edge to Baltich’s comments, I’d argue that he’s actually right about all of that (though Baltich was corrected in this letter to the editor from former Ely chamber president Bill Forsberg, who explains that Ely’s tourism revenue and visits are up, not down, since 2000). Where he goes wrong is in several barbed comments about the tourists and professionals from the Twin Cities, people we need not just to visit here, but move and invest here if the Iron Range is to actually accomplish population growth and prosperity. More on that later.
As I’ve written, the population of Iron Range cities dropped an average of 40 percent from 1980 to 2010. The towns skew older than the state average with an average household size suggesting that the kids moved away and mom and dad are either wrapping up careers or living off retirement benefits. These moms and dads are the people in charge — mayors, administrators, consultants, etc., and they know there are serious problems on the Iron Range. More drugs. More crime. More blight. There are fewer jobs and an erosion of family stability that was once a staple of Iron Range life, an effect heavily tied to the collapse of the economy 30 years ago.
All of this manifests in a generation of kids graduating from the smallest classes in 100 years of Iron Range education who will have a harder time attending college or technical college than their parents or, if they are poor, their great-grandparents. They’ve been raised to believe that maybe something good will come along if you work hard, but also in a culture that values hockey, hunting, fishing, motorsports and other recreations where it’s easy to get lost in the moment, the silent passage of seasons. Still others have simply been raised to believe there is no hope but escape from the Iron Range, fires fueled by popular culture and the advent of the Information Age.
This leaves the moms and dads, grandmas and grandpas of the Iron Range few choices. They only know that after some hard times, the taconite mines have become more stable than they’ve been since the ’70s. They know some people have shown them research explaining great reserves of other kinds of minerals beneath the woods and waters of the eastern Mesabi and Vermilion ranges. And they know that their kid needs a job here if he or she is ever going to move back.
“So, if you’re a mining opponent, what is your plan to see Ely survive? Are you willing to pay substantially more in your personal taxes to keep the city going? Will you contribute to keep the hospital operating, the roads to the entry points paved and maintained, and the schools open?”
The biggest detriment to the argument of mining opponents is that there is no ready economic alternative to mining in their worldview. Many of the locals who do oppose new mining are tied to a tourism industry where there is not a lot of growth on the horizon.
But the views of many mining supporters, a crowd that I believe includes a working majority of residents of the Iron Range, are quick to adopt false assurances from the promises of new mining. Mining is more mechanized than ever and even the most optimistic nonferrous mining outcomes would fail to back-fill the enormous gaps in our economy left by the 1980s and ’90s. Further, the environmental protection measures mines like PolyMet or Twin Metals hope to use is untested in the commercial marketplace: innovative, yes, with great potential perhaps, but worthy of investigation.
So, let us proceed with a place of agreement: there is a serious economic problem on the Iron Range. Let us make arguments that build solutions to that problem.
The Ten Hypotheses About the Northern Minnesota Mining Debate; and one solution
The debate over mining in northern Minnesota often devolves quickly, with mining supporters portrayed as greedy, ignorant monsters and mining opponents as whiny, elitist tree-huggers. They can’t even agree what to call it (Nonferrous mining for supporters, Sulfide mining for opponents).
The respective sides often rely on assumptions. Mining backers assume that A) the mines will go forth at the scale and environmental safety levels promised by the companies, and B) the jobs from those mines will save the community. Mining opponents assume that A) the mines will destroy their surroundings, and B) if we stop them, a creative, dynamic economy will sprout in their stead.
I question all of these assumptions, and prescribe a solution that is A) more difficult and B) likely to yield long term economic growth and stability for the region. In short, the only way to fix the economy of the Iron Range is to build it from within, and doing so will be the greatest challenge we’ve faced since the people of the Range were called about to win World War II with epic shipments of iron ore. Now, the commodity is innovation, and the stage is set for change on the Iron Range.
Here are my Ten Hypotheses About the Northern Minnesota Mining Debate:
It will be several more years, perhaps a decade, before there is any hope of a nonferrous mine operating in northeastern Minnesota. Yes, Polymet’s EIS review will be out this fall, with public comments in January. But several environmental organizations and Ojibwe nations are readying litigation over the validity of the company’s promises, something they’re entitled to do. Even with permits the mine companies won’t get through the litigious landmines without promising long term financial assurance for its environmental record, something their investors and shareholders will not allow.
The minerals under the ground in Northeastern Minnesota are the pistol on the wall of a Chekov play; that is to say, with global demand for precious minerals they will be mined eventually. Electronic devices are so deeply integrated in our culture now that their production and consumption is of global concern. We can’t count on cheap minerals and workers from overseas for long. Remember, we were those workers in 1907. Domestic mining and manufacturing will become attractive options once this change takes place, ensuring some form of demand into the future. So we should prepare for the reality that, one day (not tomorrow, but perhaps within 10 years) these mines will happen.
Even so, nonferrous mineral mining is more volatile than iron. Ups and downs should be expected, with workers moving in and out of the region for mining.
It is highly unlikely that the companies building the mining projects now will be the companies operating them when the mines close, or even five years after opening. Just look at how mines in the West have been proposed, built and then sold multiple times, to companies that never sent smiling representatives to community meetings to promise environmental safety. I know a lot of very good people who work for these new mine projects in Minnesota. I wish I could say that they’ll be the ones in the corner offices in 10 or 20 years, but they probably won’t. With the sale of these mines come variables and potential problems we can’t predict.
The new mining jobs will be a part of an even more mechanized, automated process than we’ve seen in area iron mines, thus bringing fewer jobs with higher technical needs and pay. The automation of the mining industry worldwide is making the jobs in the field more efficient, more technical, and less plentiful as compared to the mining our parents and grandparents knew on the Iron Range. The video below shows that many companies are exploring robotic haul trucks, which cut the number of truck operators needed in half.
Australian mines are finding ways to mine ore for the global market with just such practices, and it’s only a matter of time before mines here will do the same. These will be very good jobs; higher pay, competitive with the jobs in western North Dakota on pay (and in a better place to live); but even fewer jobs than exist now, and only available after extensive education. That’s an economic reality; not an argument.
It’s a coin flip whether the new mines are unionized. They’ll be built with union labor, per agreement, but these mines will face early union votes among workers who will be hired by a process that screens them for attitudes about unions and, like the Steelworkers’ defeat at Mesabi Nugget, there’s a better-than-you-think chance those union votes will fail. This will erode the power of the very labor unions and labor-friendly politicians who have backed these new mines on the Iron Range.
Done right, the environmental process promised by Polymet and other companies could be groundbreaking. The new technology could be harnessed into innovative industry on the Iron Range, not just the mining but the technology behind it. There is an internationally relevant interest in finding out whether it works or not.
In the future, having clean water and a temperate climate will be more valuable to us than the minerals below the ground. That’s not to say we won’t need the minerals; we will. And we will probably mine them. But we’ll benefit most from figuring out how to balance mineral extraction with resource management.
The entire debate has thus far existed on a premise that the land, minerals and water of northern Minnesota are controlled by powerful outside fate-brokers. So long as that is the case, the people of northern Minnesota will eventually suffer disappointment. EPA regulations are written in D.C. and Polymet is owned by a global corporation. When an Ely resident says they want to keep the BWCA and mine safely, they mean it. No one else cares as much about both at the same time. We must stop being inebriated by tomorrow’s paycheck so that we can plan for a future.
Finally, I’ve spent a long time looking for an example of a community built on a mining economy that survived the end of its mining. The only examples are towns that were absorbed by growing cities. The Iron Range has already beat many odds by surviving a century, but we can’t count on another century, nor should we. Diversification is the only way we can save the communities marked by our work and that of our ancestors.
My overarching solution: Only we can save the Iron Range 21st Century. Stop waiting for the mines, or complaining about them. All Iron Range mental, emotional and financial resources should be dedicated to streamlining education into innovative fields. Every Iron Range resident should be called upon directly to pursue community improvement, whether through volunteerism, organizing, investment or simple beautification. We must come in out of the woods, out of our internal worlds to give something tangible to our sense of place. Yes, many give countless hours and dollars already, but that hasn’t been enough. We will find that a little bit more from all of us would go further. We can’t wait for the same folks, the same institutions to bail us out again. Some of our greatest community servants are literally elderly, giving more of themselves than they should have to. Others must step up now.
We must encourage the arts, new businesses, and independent workers who would benefit from living in a beautiful, affordable place. Our infrastructure must match this goal — developing our towns (not our outskirts of town), expanding internet affordability and availability across the region. We must welcome others, because the Iron Range of the future will be populated by people whose great-grandparents came from Maplewood or Mexico, not necessarily Montenegro.
In this vision, mining will neither go away nor remain the lynchpin of the next century. Mining will be a viable, important field that employs 5-9 percent of our people. We will simply demand that companies pay for the ore they take from our region, and that they conform to reasonable laws about long range protection of our land and water, itself an invaluable commodity in a hotter, drier future. These arguments won’t go away; but they must not shape us and become our identity. We should have reasonably expectations about what mining can and can’t do for our economy, and pick up the slack ourselves.
And yeah, Big City, put your life where your mouth is and move here. Bring friends. Start new communities of influence. Preserve this land yourself. Some old people might yell at you for one thing or another, but that’ll blow over. Believe me, I know. It might be hard, if you use money as your value. But if you use values — like nature, work ethic and community — as your money, you will rejoice for the opportunities northern Minnesota offers.
The old days are dead; long live the new days.
Aaron J. Brown is an author and community college instructor from the Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece is an extended cut of a two part special commentary originally published in the Hibbing Daily Tribune, running on Sept. 8 and 15, 2013.