Life is for people, not industries or ideologies

Northland’s NewsCenter recently completed a four-part series “Boom, Bust, and Beyond” about the causes and effects of the coming mining downturn on the Iron Range and ways to deal with it.

MinnesotaBrown's Aaron Brown was interviewed on "Boom, Bust and Beyond," a recent series on Northland's NewsCenter. (Screenshot)

MinnesotaBrown’s Aaron Brown was interviewed on “Boom, Bust and Beyond,” a recent series on Northland’s NewsCenter. (Screenshot)

The last piece focused on economic diversification, a frequent topic here at MinnesotaBrown, and featured an interview with yours truly, along with other Range officials and industry experts.

Ah, there’s me with a pair of provocative sound bites, just like the provocative nature of last week’s column.

Before the mining-minded among you throw boots at the screen, consider this. The Iron Range lost 40 percent of its population, 50 percent of its student population and two-thirds of its mining jobs since the 1980 census, so I have data to back up my first claim. And in my second quote, that “traditional taconite mines might not survive the duration of our history here,” I’m referring to the fact that blast furnaces slowing fading away, and that our iron mines will need to add value to their products to stay relevant in the market place. Some of that is happening, but slowly. Anyway, it isn’t a surprise to anyone who actually knows mining.

I realize that I’ve been spitting out rainbows about the virtues of economic diversification for a while. Some would prefer I list an 800-page engineering document detailing exactly what the Range should do, while others would prefer I talk about how diversifying the metals we mine is good enough. I can take the criticism. Heck, sometimes I annoy myself. But I really want to push back on the notion that iron mining and economic diversification are exclusive propositions.

As Tony Barrett says in the interview, you can’t whip up jobs that pay $60-100K/year like mining does quick enough to just swap them out. When I talk about economic diversification I’m not talking about shutting down the mines. But that doesn’t mean mines won’t shut down, and it certainly is no guarantee that those jobs will be as numerous as they are now forever. That’s the point I’m getting at.

Yes, the ore is in the ground, but the means of getting it out is increasingly sophisticated, automated, and prone to market forces. Further, the number of people that will be needed to mine just 10 or 20 years from now won’t fill our schools, maintain our housing stock or support attractive communities on their own. Frankly, that’s true now. That’s my point.

Why am I not touting the virtues of the modern mining industry all the time? Well, I know for a fact that the mining companies put an underground cage full of lobbyists in the field at the legislature this year and spend plenty of money reminding people they exist. Most of the specific legislative accomplishments for the Iron Range this year will be related to helping the mines.

The economic diversification and creative thinking the Iron Range needs has no lobbyists. It brings no peace to a union meeting nor does it reassure someone holding a layoff notice. It will, however, create a future for my children and my neighbors’ children.  The help we need will not come from outside institutions. Only those deeply invested in living here and strengthening the human fibers (not just the profits) of Northern Minnesota have any hope of success. They will have to win hearts and minds with personal labor.

If balance is what you want, I shall deliver true balance by advocating for ideas that are difficult, honest and necessary. I’m not always right but I’m willing to learn and change; further, I’m always going to tell the truth.

Life is for people, not industries or ideologies. So, too, is this blog.


  1. John Ramos says

    I grew up in Calumet, Michigan, seventy years after the last of the copper mines closed. At one time the population of Calumet was 30,000. Today it’s around 3,000. Houghton County was over 100,000, today it’s at 36,000. There are crumbling ghost burgs in the woods, and rusted-out mine buildings everywhere.

    The thing is, as a kid growing up there, I never had the slightest sense of loss about the mining: it was just the way things were. I liked where I lived, enjoyed exploring old buildings (and even old mines!), had plenty of friends, worked as a paper carrier and short-order cook, and had a pretty normal childhood all around.

    I’m not suggesting that everyone fatalistically accept the death of the Range economy. I’m just saying that people tend to adjust to their situations, whatever they are–and future generations, the ones we always say we’re doing things for, tend to adjust better than the current one. It’s a weirdly optimistic thing.

  2. Yes, John, I’ve slowly but surely come to similar conclusions about where I live. And I’ve been to Calumet — so I see exactly what you mean. (In fact, I’d like to bring my radio show to that old theater there someday). Humanity does have a way of carrying on. It’d be nice to ease the suffering of poverty and desperation, though. Especially since we probably could if enough people tried.

  3. John Ramos says

    Another feature of the Calumet area is that there are large stone battleships standing here and there. During the Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps built these boats as part of a government program to put people to work beautifying the area. They’re still cool. Kids still enjoy climbing on them. I wonder if some of that IRRRB money could be used to put people to work during downturns–not to bring in new business, but simply to keep people occupied and paid when the larger economy leaves them behind. I’m sure there are plenty of useful projects that could get done this way.

  4. John Ramos says

    Oh, and if the GNRS did ever make it to the Calumet Theater, I would have material for you. Boy oh boy, would I.

  5. I think that as long as there is even a minuscule amount of old economy, there will be a sizeable contingent that seeks to maintain it. Then when it finally dissapears, it takes 2 generations to accept it and move on…I think the first generation to experience the death of their parents’ dreams must move on or pass away.
    I have some familiarity with Cuyuna, having grown up there. That is the Cuyuna story.

  6. Aaron, I read your stuff as your point of view seems gutsy and independent.
    Seems to me that every time I go to the Legislature there are horrible Range politicians trying to cut back on environmental protections, in the name of protecting “mining.” And, in this session, they are getting away with it, making common cause with the Republicans. i don’t detect much awareness of this but wonder if the Range won’t eventually pay a price, especially as the population declines and the Range has less representation in the Legislature. That will be a good thing if Range political clout continues to be used so irresponsibly.

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