No time for desperation on the Iron Range

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

It was my freshman year of high school and I was running for re-election as class president. As a power-hungry nerd, you can imagine the stakes. I had come to school that day prepared to fend off challenges.

I was ready for everything, except one thing: fate.

As a joke, my friends decided to nominate a hulking offensive lineman from our JV football team. Everyone thought this was pretty funny. I could read the impending danger in the crowd and gave an impassioned, some might say overly impassioned speech highlighting the stability and prosperity of my two years of junior high class leadership.

But the election wasn’t really about all that. I lost by a few votes, almost every one of my friends caught up in the prank. I was crushed.

After the presidential race came the elections for vice-president, secretary and student council representative-at-large. I was desperate. Each time I nominated myself and argued, then pleaded, then begged my classmates for their votes. I lost each race by wider and wider margins.

And good thing. Though my classmates and I didn’t know it, an important evolutionary function was taking place that day: the rejection of desperation. Desperation is poison to society and will destroy the entire order if allowed to continue. Desperation causes bad, short-sighted decisions and allows good people to be exploited and corrupted. Desperation must be eliminated. If we won’t consciously expunge desperation ourselves, unconscious forces will, in time, do it for us. We will pay for our desperation. This has always been so.

It is in this interest that I turn the subject to the politics and future of Northern Minnesota. Perhaps you’ve seen the myriad stories speckled across the Minnesota media about this region’s mining debate and its relevance to the coming 2014 election, and a broader future beyond that.

The debate over mining and politics on Northern Minnesota’s Iron Range has become so well-worn that it has developed its own tropes and cliches. No panel discussion or Twitter fight is complete without these details:

  • The recitation of environmental disasters at varying copper mines around the world.
  • Someone waving a cell phone around and saying that these have all kinds of minerals in them.
  • Blaming the generally dilapidated appearance of Downtown “Iron Range Town USA” on your opponents and their kind.
  • Sadness, then anger, then desperation over the fact that some relative can’t find good work in northern Minnesota, or that institutions once held sacred are collapsing before the still-living eyes of an entire people, or that venerated traditions are changing.

From here, most people fall into a simplistic argument — for or against — that can fit comfortably on a small sign placed in a yard facing the highway. There, modern Iron Rangers and tourists zip by — fewer than 10 percent of them having anything to do with mining whatsoever. A debate then unfolds that seems to assume this could change, if only environmentalists — those mangy rogues — stayed out of the way.

Here’s the kicker: new mining or no, that 10 percent mark won’t be overcome; nor will Range population fluctuate much except in a few towns. We’ve lost more than 8,000 iron mining jobs in three decades; 300 new ones at PolyMet won’t reverse that loss. We’ve lost half our school age kids, and 40 percent of our overall population; a number that would be worse if we weren’t a destination for lake home retirees. Even 1,000 more jobs in the following decade from more distant mining projects would barely patch these gaping wounds.

So the more telling question is this: why do we mine? Do we seek new mining because satisfying the market demand for the minerals is of vital importance to our collective society? Or do we seek new mining because we’ve watched the Range cough up blood since 1982 and we’re desperate to save what we love? Mining companies are in it for the former, but most of their supporters seem fixated on the latter.

News coverage has tended to focus on the divisions over mining. The mining divide in the DFL is playing into Republican political strategy. GOP challenger Stewart Mills issued a stern rebuke of U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan because Nolan endorsed State Auditor Rebecca Otto, his party’s two-term incumbent for that office. Last year, Otto was the sole protest vote against a land transfer that would have benefited nonferrous mining proposals. Neither Otto’s vote, nor Nolan’s endorsement, nor Mills’ countering press release will change anything. But it’s a bucket of ink for political writers, and seemingly the sole concern of the Mesabi Daily News editorial page.

Such a misplaced priority this becomes. A complicated environmental review process is well underway, and this process will yield an answer soon enough. The more desperate you are, the slower it all seems to go. The more desperate you are, the more enemies you make or make up. The more desperate you are, the more any result will ultimately disappoint.

The most important goal Iron Range communities should strive for now is to stand up out of the crouching position. Mining supporters and opponents; liberals and conservatives — these groups might not agree on political goals, but surely they could agree on how cool it would be to have a major event for young families in every town on the Range this summer. Surely they could agree that public art and attractive green space is a good for our souls, and also our small businesses. Surely they could agree on a fishing tournament, a foot race or an off road ATV track. Surely they can agree that stronger curriculum in the schools will help prepare our students for the future. Surely we all love our children.

Never mind the rest; we can do this. Do not give in to desperation; not now, when technology, good schools, abundant water and the great outdoors are poised to diversify Northern Minnesota’s economy; not now, when the miracle is so near. Our enemy is not the miner down the street, or the environmentalist up the road: our enemy is desperation, and the community paralysis that comes with it.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This post first appeared in the Sunday, June 22, 2014 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


  1. John Ramos says

    Desperation isn’t the only thing that leads to bad, short-sighted decisions. Optimism does it, too.

  2. Amen, great column.

  3. Excellent, Aaron.

  4. Al Gustaveson says

    Thanks! Best you’ve writen in a good time…and those of us who love this place couldn’t agree more.

  5. Aaron, thank you for pointing out germane Iron Range realities in your “Here’s the kicker” paragraph. I can’t recall these plain truths being discussed by area newspapers on local tv channels nor mentioned by our ardent pro-mining neighbors and friends. There is a Knight in Shining Armor Syndrome atmosphere on the Iron Range, imo.

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