The politics of retribution on the Iron Range

Above pipestone falls, on Newton Lake,  in the BWCAW.

Above pipestone falls, on Newton Lake, in the BWCAW.

This week, Robbie Feinberg of City Pages penned a long form story about the nonferrous mining debate in Northern Minnesota. He spent time with supporters and opponents of projects like PolyMet and Twin Metals to compose his story, which I’d recommend reading in its entirety.

The story treads over some familiar ground, but also does a good job of showing the raw emotion involved in the debate at the ground level here in Northern Minnesota, the region most affected by the outcome of the controversy.

One telling detail, however, was this: Gerald Tyler of the pro-mining group Up North Jobs keeps an enemies list of anti-mining officials and organizations in his office. And he’s all too happy to waive it around in front of a Twin Cities reporter.

It brings to mind letters (and sentiments) like this one from State Rep. David Dill (DFL-Crane Lake) to the citizens of Cook County in his House District 3A. He warns Cook County that opposition to mining causes “core Iron Range DFLers” to question whether the county should remain in the Taconite Tax Relief Area, the region supported financially by production taxes from Minnesota iron mines. He says he is working to keep Cook County in the TTRA, but there is a veiled message here: watch it, or your funding gets pulled. Further, it’s not terribly difficult to find someone who’s been on the receiving end of a letter or phone call from former State Rep. Tom Rukavina, who is currently running for St. Louis County Commissioner. He has been outspoken in dealing with township officials opposed to mining, again using the threat of IRRRB funding.

By writing this, I am confident that someone, somewhere is cursing this very blog post, and wondering how much money could be extracted from my home township. I’ve been in the room for far too many of these conversations.

This is not helpful. It’d be funny if it weren’t so counterproductive and, frankly, mean-spirited.

One of the most difficult things to watch in this debate is how the region’s leaders are all too willing to shred old coalitions and working partnerships over “purity” on the mining issue. There is certainly a political role in the mining debate, but it shares the stage with the regulatory, judicial and economic processes that will determine the projects’ viability. In the quest to win a political battle, sentiments like this will cause the people of the Iron Range to lose a much bigger economic war. Yes, hundreds of mining jobs are at stake, but so too are thousands of unrelated jobs in the industries of tomorrow. There’s not much room to unify and make progress in the region if people are shut out for lack of interest or shared belief in mining.

Mining as a plan for our economic future will only work if it can exist alongside tourism and economic diversification. If it fails to do so, it will kill the region instead of saving it. There shouldn’t be a problem with this. Mining companies say they can meet this challenge. The only reason we would need to worry is if the mining companies weren’t telling the truth. And if they aren’t telling the truth, there’s certainly no reason to help them. The people of the Iron Range, and especially their elected leaders, should focus on solutions to the mining question, not forced obedience.



  1. In retrospect, this election would have been the perfect opportunity for political leaders to have expanded the dialogue. Dayton and Franken have had to tiptoe around the sulfide mining issue, because of statewide sentiment against polluting the waters of the Arrowhead Region–flowing both into Lake Superior and the Boundary Waters.
    This election might prove to be the break up of Democrat control of the Iron Range. The 8th district is simply too large and politically diverse to manipulate. Unfortunately, it seems that guns and mining are taking predominance over the many social issues of the area.

  2. Verne Wagner says

    I remember these debates during the lawsuit to get Reserve Mining Company to dump taconite tailings on land rather then in Lake Superior. Also when we fought to stop logging in the BWCA and copper nickel mining in the early 70’s Politicians fueled the debate and the public anger. Tommy Rukavina grew up with this also and knows its good politics for a Range politician. So many folks in Ely had bumper stickers that read ‘Kiss My Axe Sierra Club” or “Keep Minnesota Green, plant an environmentalist” . But we pushed on and common sense prevailed. Also those range politicians found it better to embrace these decisions once it created more jobs. As this all plays out, it really is a Federal fight and not a State fight. The EPA will be the decider and so will the Federal Courts. Remember it was Federal Judge Miles Lord that forced Reserve Mining Company to stop polluting, not the State. I am thankful for the Tribes who have been such a strong force in this battle. The Tribes hold allot of political capital and a strong legal team to fight this.

    • This is a MN fight not a Fed fight. Do you want a board of folks from New York, LA & Chicago deciding if we mine here in our backyard? There should be no Federal EPA, each state should decide what is right for them. I come from a mining family and owe a great debt to iron ore and taconite mining. We need a MN EPA and let our elected officials take the heat for delaying or denying us miners the right to work. By the way, forest fires on Fed land are at an all time high because they won’t allow logging on Fed land. Just so you know, trees grow, die and become fuel to burn and clean forest floor. Logging brings jobs, reduces the price of lumber & plus reduces forest fires. I had a “kiss my axe” bumper sticker and still feel the same way. I’m old now but am a miners son and love the Range as much as anyone…… I also know folks have to work- we are miners- let us mine.

      • Verne Wagner says

        Ken this is a fight to uphold the laws and standards that protect the environment and our health and that of future generations.

        When Polymet first got started they pledged as well as lawmakers they would and could meet these laws and standards. Now they want to change the laws and standards to fit
        What they can’t do, have an environmentally safe mine.

        I also worked in the mining industry and know its boom and bust cycles. Look at LTV and how they walked away from their obligations

        Have to do this right. If it can’t be done right then move on, not screw you all
        I can have a job for 20 years maybe,

        • The Fed EPA is changing the standards. Polymet passed all the tests for safe sulfide mining years ago only to be caught up in litigation by every “green” group against sulfide mining. I talked to a Twin metals board member who was at Giants Ridge this fall and he said of course they were passing codes because that was the only way they would get permits. As soon as they would pass all the codes set by EPA, some group would demand a new study and the goal line was moved on them…. They are in the business of mining minerals they know they have to comply with regulations. The days of renegade mining are over. Every aspect of mining is over regulated…. Let them hire our sons and daughters and do what us Rangers do best- MINE for minerals.

  3. Bertie Solmdahl says

    Guns , mining , Menards Guy … hopefully we’ll see younger progressives freshen the stubbornly retrograde 8th .

  4. Independent says

    I was born and raised on the east side of the Iron Range and was forced to move to the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area for about 15 years due to a lack of jobs in NE Minnesota. I now live on the headwaters of the St. Louis river and have probably spent more hours than most in a canoe in the BWCA. The vast majority of supporters of copper and precious metals mining are actually from the area and enjoy the natural environment we live in and around. I am disappointed when I continue to read that either you are for a few hundred (not even close, try thousands all told) copper mining jobs and are too uneducated to know any better or you are enlightened and are for the diversification of our local economy. There is absolutely no reason we should settle for anything less than doing both while holding everyone accountable and being good stewards to the environment. If we could all think bigger than our personal shallow extreme “Left” or “Right” side of the issues imagine what could be accomplished working together toward an all of the above approach.

    • I’ve lived on the Iron Range my entire life and have never owned a canoe, if that matters. I rather prefer reading and paying attention to the activities of the world. It’s one thing to be optimistic about the economic benefit of new mining. It’s another to say with a straight face that PolyMet and Twin Metald will produce thousands if jobs just because industry lobbyists say so. Those minerals have been there a long time, and people have known that at least 40 years. This is a market proposition. If these companies hire more than 1000 workers they wouldnt attract a dime in investment. I share your frustration with the economy of northern MN. I don’t repeat false hopes. I don’t shill for companies that have PR departments.

      • Independent says

        Ouch, why so negative. The thousands of workers would not all be as direct hire employees some would be independent contractors and venders. We can do better than stand in our corners and bicker. Lets all work together to make sure these projects are done right instead of being obstructionists or blind supporters.

        • I apologize if that was overly negative. That was not my intent. It is just to express my frustration with the “thousands of jobs” argument that I firmly believe are routinely overstated in this debate. When people think they can get thousands of jobs by sitting back and doing nothing, they don’t work to build community or enterprise new ideas. The rebirth of a new Iron Range economy will be built in hard work, not passive acceptance. Apologies if my tone is curt. I have had this conversation before. You seem like a nice person, so that was unkind of me.

  5. You nailed it Ken. If the EPA existed when the Merritt brothers first charted the course to mine the Mesabi Range not an ounce of iron ore would have been mined. Aaron’s dad would have had no junk to yard and most likely, Aaron himself wouldn’t have been born. Not to mention we’d have lost WWII..

  6. However….if there had been an EPA back then, the good news would be we’d have no steel workers union, no IRRRB, no Rouchleau pit filled with water and no talk of spending $500 million to build a bridge over it. Oh…and no need for free hi-speed internet for all to diversify the north woods economy. Smoke signals would still be the norm.

  7. I just can’t figure out why Taco Nite is such a big deal on the Iron Range. Sure, you need people to fry the tortillas and mix the guacamole, but does that really create thousands of jobs?

  8. Ranger47, I’ve said that if the EPA was around in 1890 the Range today would be part of the BWCA and the only access would be by canoe. Both sets of my grandparents came to North Minn to work in the mines and my Dad worked for over 40 yrs as a miner. They came to the Range with no assurances from the Govt that they would be given 1 single penny- they came to work!!! All we want up here is a chance to work.

  9. We’re in violent agreement Ken..

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.