The purpose of the meeting was to parse the language of a 2,000-page tome of geology, hydrology, chemistry and economics. That’s a tough sell. Even offered free donuts, average humans would duck a meeting of that description.
But this particular meeting on Jan. 16, 2014 — first of three hearings for the PolyMet Mining environmental impact statement — attracted nearly 1,500 people to the DECC ballroom in Duluth. Without donuts. Another hearing on the Iron Range last Wednesday, Jan. 22, drew between 500-800 people, according to various reports. No donuts there, either.
Many of the people weren’t really talking about the EIS. This was, at its deepest core, another salvo in a political and cultural war over mining, the people, the land, the water and the future of northern Minnesota. Battles waged over the creation of the BWCA, the collapse of the 1980s, the closure of LTV, were being fought again by the very same warriors, their sons and daughters. Everyone believes they’re fighting for the future of the region. Everyone believes they’re doing the right thing for our kids. But two sides whose disagreements seem diametrically opposed have formed; and shared goodwill for the future is not enough.
The reality is we are several years away from this new mining, if it happens at all. This is not a random opinion. This is a reasonable hypothesis. And while that does not diminish the importance of PolyMet or other nonferrous projects, it does put them in proper context.
But emotions are at the forefront. People use words like “our way of life.” That’s never a good sign. Here in Hibbing and in towns across the Iron Range, well-intentioned supporters of PolyMet dedicated time and resources to sending people in buses to the Duluth hearing. More local supporters drove over to the Aurora hearing. The big finale will occur at the last hearing this Tuesday, Jan. 28, in the Twin Cities.
Thousands of hours have been poured into a process that is likely headed toward a fatalistic conclusion; one outside our control, dictated by data and financing.
Meantime, our local Iron Range economy is in an immediate state of crisis. Downtown businesspeople I talk to across the Range tell me times are as bad now as ever. It’s not about the mines (which are doing very well); it’s about our population, our attitude and our willingness to work on what we *can* control.
Chuck Marohn is president of Strong Towns, a Brainerd-based nonprofit that helps small towns and regions all over America plan for a future when resources are limited. He says the Iron Range can’t let one project overshadow the work that needs to be done.
“The highest returning investments for any small town can be found in our existing neighborhoods,” said Marohn. “It is those little things we can do right now, with our current budgets, to make life better for the people who already live here. Things like planting a tree, painting a crosswalk or fixing a sidewalk. In our pursuit of the elusive big prize, we overlook all of the easy stuff we could be doing that would collectively have a major impact right now.”
Like me, Marohn is frustrated watching the attention local leaders pay the regulatory process on a big project like PolyMet, when obvious, solvable problems are all around.
“Sadly, our trickle down, big project approach robs us of more than our money,” said Marohn. “They steal our focus, our energy and our resourcefulness. I think a modern Iron Range leader could make a convincing case that the future is not in chasing these huge investments — projects that will come to us eventually — but in making Range cities strong and healthy places for people to live right now. That is a totally different approach, but one that would actually benefit real people in the present time.
“The mineral resources are locked underground,” Marohn continued. “God’s not likely to move them anytime soon. They only grow more valuable each day, but the clock is ticking on all our lives. Why we give away the store chasing rainbows while we ignore all the easy things we could be doing is bewildering.”
Bewildinging indeed. The economic reality on the Iron Range is decided more complex than “add mining jobs and prosper.” Many jobs in retail, service, mining and health care are available right now, but companies struggle to find local workers with the right qualifications. Our schools don’t offer the classes students need; our colleges are in a funding crisis. Meantime, workers in information-based, creative fields are frozen out; forced to Duluth, Minneapolis or further away. Small town institutions are failing; buildings are crumbling.
Few approach the planning of communities on the Iron Range with an eye toward creativity, welcoming others, and recognizing future trends in employment and technology. Basically, if it’s not something people in their late 50s understand, we don’t do it here. That’s a poisonous strategy for the future of the Range.
So, maybe “those crazy enviros” really are “out to get us,” or maybe the “big developers” are just going “to rob us and pollute our waters.” I’m more concerned that the Hibbing Winter Frolic won’t have a Queen or Titan of Taconite this year. Or that we can’t keep the indoor playground going at the Hibbing library. Or that the burned out gas station remains on main street in Nashwauk.
Why? Because those are things we can control, and things we can act on. And we aren’t doing anything about them. What are we waiting for?
Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This post first appeared in the Sunday, Jan. 26, 2014 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.