Summer of trials and tribulations on the Iron Range

Word NEWS in Old Typewriter Typebar Letters Isolated on WhiteThe last few months of Iron Range politics and economics have been discouraging.

That’s as polite as I can be in describing what’s happened: the repetitive, lazy assumptions of local media, the underreported stories of inside dealings, the overstatement of future economic growth from new kinds of mining and the understatement of the tremendous market pressures coming down the pike for current iron mines. The apathy. The crushing apathy.

Meantime, economic diversification is your sister’s new husband from the city — the locals know he makes more money, but most would rather not think about it. Maybe she’ll leave him for your buddy who works at the mine. Then your buddy would be over at Thanksgiving and you could both go bird hunting instead of talking. That’d be awesome. This other guy, your sister’s husband, is always talking about the stupid apps on his phone. They do yoga together. I don’t know, man. I just don’t know.

I’ve written thousands of words on these topics in the last year. It’s summer. Northern Minnesota is beautiful. My children are growing up right in front of me. I just can’t write a big essay every time I’m frustrated by the status quo of Range politics. At this point, I’ve written so many that the market for them is saturated by my own past work.

So today, instead, I’ll point out three issues that I’d encourage you to explore on your own, as presented by other talented writers:

First off, read this excellent piece by Minnesota Public Radio’s Dan Kraker, “On the Iron Range, a push for a new kind of iron.” He talks to mining industry experts and economists about the situation facing Northern Minnesota’s iron mining industry. In essence, smart people are convinced the Range will need to start producing iron ore products suited for the newer electronic arc furnaces (direct-reduced iron) or face existential market peril. Most Range mines are just now exploring the technology, and slow investment in this change raises deeply troubling questions about the future of the region’s biggest industry.

Some big news on the copper/nickel mining front happened last week as the Minnesota DNR announced the completion of its draft environmental impact statement on the proposed PolyMet mine near Hoyt Lakes. Marshall Helmberger at the Timberjay reports that this is a significant event in this ongoing news story, but that several more weeks of comments by other agencies and stakeholders will mean 6-10 more weeks until formal completion of the EIS. In essence, the DNR believes there is a way forward for PolyMet but the EIS does not necessarily mean smooth sailing for the permitting process, where legal injunctions and other delays are expected. It seems that the operative question will be this: How will PolyMet assure the state that it will reliably deploy the environmental safeguards it has successfully demonstrated?

Then we start to see the stories that make you want to shoot at your TV Elvis-style. Sally Jo Sorensen at Bluestem Prairie was digging around the dregs of the last-minute deals cut at the end of the special legislative session, already a couple weeks old. She noted this item: the fact that one last-minute legislative provision funded a cell phone tower up in the Side Lake community, near where State Sen. David Tomassoni has his family’s summer cabin.

Then, continuing her investigative series on the Iron Range — which seems to know no end — Jennifer Bjorhus explored the new $300,000 flushing outhouse on Crane Lake that Rep. David Dill secured in 2013 without much public discussion. It’s important to know, as Sally Jo  points out, that this was a story broken by Helmberger in April.

Now, I’m not normally one to begrudge any new investment in Iron Range technology infrastructure — whether it’s fiber optic cable or new cell towers. I know some people up Side Lake way who will be thrilled to have the new cell phone tower. We should make these investments not out of parochial interests, but in genuine celebration of increased connectivity wherever it is needed.

Nevertheless, it’s curious to me why our leaders constantly feel the need to act on these ideas only in last-minute, closed door deals. And it’s troubling to me, coincidence or not, that such actions seem to get special treatment only when there is some tangential personal benefit to a politically-connected person. By my estimation, the Sturgeon/Side Lake chain holds the third or fourth-most expensive properties in St. Louis County. Crane Lake is another place where influential people recreate (Dill lives there). I’m naive enough to keep hoping for a last-minute deal cut for the benefit of the flat broke, apolitical people who comprise the largest part of Iron Range demographics.

The apocryphal Chinese blessing/curse “May You Live in Interesting Times” has come true. There is no sense fretting over the future. Here it comes.



  1. I have to agree with you, esp regarding such things as technology. My example is that I waited for years for DSL at the cheap advertised price to be available on my very busy road, easy walking distance to town. No way, apparently, even though some kind of cable was ditched in. HOWEVER, my friends have had DSL at their water access only lake cabin (not mansion) for years, due to who owns a place nearby. Yup.

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