COLUMN: Today’s Range pioneers must break the circle

This is my weekly column from the Sunday, April 3, 2011 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

Today’s Range pioneers must break the circle
By Aaron J. Brown

No position, no land, no political condition may be defended indefinitely. Always in history the walls fall, the barbarians throw open the gates. The same is true here today on the Iron Range. Our defenses are failing. We must begin a new campaign for social territory, prosperity and the values which lifted an immigrant people from poverty to prominence.

By now you’ve heard that House and Senate Republicans advanced bills raiding an economic development fund administered by the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board. Named for Douglas J. Johnson after the state senator’s retirement, this fund capitalizes projects throughout the Range using interest from the region’s taconite production tax revenue. Local lawmakers, both DFL and GOP, expressed anger and frustration over the nabbing.

The outrage is well deserved. The dollars from the Johnson Fund are derived from mining production tax revenue, the Iron Range equivalent of property taxes. No state dollars have ever gone into the fund, nor was it ever intended to be used to fix a state budget crisis. Indeed, the act of taking this money is similar to asking a major city to ship its cash reserves to St. Paul, never to be returned or even acknowledged.

No Range citizen of any political stripe should abide this sort of unfair, sham solution to our budget predicament, particularly when a small region like the Range is bled out like an animal so that others may be spared any sacrifice whatsoever. All this, of course, represents a political argument repeated countless times in recent years. I’ve repeated it myself and there’d be little reason to repeat it again if there weren’t such a new urgency.

The concern is this could happen. Only Gov. Mark Dayton can stop it this year. Even if he does, he can’t forever, nor can we hold off wary urban liberals and suburban conservatives for much longer.

Those disinclined to pass favor or interest toward Range simply will not change their minds, not now. Sometimes the sin is rank partisanship, ours or theirs. Sometimes the sin is the continuation of failed policies, the propping up of an abject failure like Excelsior Energy or the practice of running new projects through the same group of lobbyists. The people are confused by promises and leaders in St. Paul can’t understand why this should be allowed to continue.

It shouldn’t. We need change.

With taconite poised to have a very strong 2011, this economic development fund might seem only a parochial concern. It is not. Defunded, our ability to recover from the next inevitable drop in global steel prices or industry reorganization will be deeply compromised.

Mining, the primary economic driver of our region, will end forever at some yet unknown time in the future. No other region faces such a specific existential threat to it’s economy. For half a century the Range survived down times in mining with the economic development and tax credits afforded by the IRRRB. The agency and its funds are vitally important to any hope of economic diversification beyond mining, and it is more of a prayer than a plan at this point.

Nevertheless, the status quo is not defensible. I won’t try anymore, nor should Iron Range leaders. We must demand a new way forward, for there is no reason to give up hope.

Last week I wrote about our region’s population. It’s not dropping, so much as aging, become less economically vibrant. We could survive as a tourist draw, retirement home and sometimes mineral colony indefinitely, just not particularly well. What if, instead of holding money in ways that are sorely misunderstood around the state, the IRRRB and entire Range focused on efforts that would address our greatest need: a welcoming environment for young families and entrepreneurs.

Schools. Communities. Measurable goals and accountability, to be enforced by the people of the Iron Range.

Sometimes Great Plains pioneers circled the wagons to fight off external threats. They would fight and fight. Their defensive position would often allow them to survive, move on. But the Range has circled the wagons since we lost Rudy Perpich and we’ve lost much more since. It is time to break the circle, ride hard and fast at the horizon. Our hands should reach forward toward what really matters, instead of covering our eyes or being chopped off after 20 years of mad flailing.

This storm will not pass. We must ride.

Aaron J. Brown is a writer and community college instructor from the Iron Range. Read more at his blog or in his book “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range.”


  1. The Trust Fund is set up instead of property taxes. The rest of the State is upset that the mining companies doesn’t pay property taxes, thus taking money away from all Minnesotans. You stated that for a half century that Rangers benefitted from economic development and tax credits afforded by IRRRB. Can you site the economic developments started by IRRRB that help sustain our region through tough times.
    If, and I state IF, the IRRRB actually did something with the money that we could all point to, our defense of the fund would be easier. The Trust Fund has been a boondoggle for political paybacks and pet projects for years. Look at the disaster with wind turbines by Virginia, IRRRB put money into them with the contract reading no maintenance to be paid by IRRRB and a payback over time. When the turbines went down due to wrong lubricants (they froze up, lubricants were rated to 0 degrees), who paid the maintenance, IRRRB. Reason given to board: it would look bad to have wind turbines down where everyone could see them not turning. By the way, forget payback on investment with turbines, they don’t produce enough to cover costs, much less payback, the last I heard.
    Please hold someone accountable for doing something positive with Trust Fund so I can defend it. The rest of the State feels we’re wasting tax dollars up here.

  2. Setting aside the issue of wind turbines, which is a specific problem I can’t speak to, I don’t have much on which to disagree. I could contact the agency or go back to the papers and find examples of agency success. These are what I speak of. Most of the big non-mining projects have been failures, though, and often wasteful ones. This is precisely the reason I believe regional economic and education funding reform is necessary and what I hope to advocate in coming years.

  3. The wind turbines on the Laurentian were turning the day Ed and I biked across Mesabi Trail a couple summers back. I was happily surprised to see them there…thought it was a great sign of progress. Too bad the IRRRB don’t put that 60 million to work building more, eh?

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