Everybody wants to save the Range

I can’t stand this indecision
Married with a lack of vision
Everybody wants to rule the world
Say that you’ll never never never never need it
One headline why believe it?
Everybody wants to rule the world

~ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears

Chris Pratt from the Iron Range

Chris Pratt, who was born on the Iron Range, would know what to do.

So, that’s the tune, only try it as “Everybody Wants to Save the Range.”

This week we’ve lamented market conditions wreaking economic havoc upon mines along the Mesabi Iron Range. Fortunately, there are efforts to help the people affected. Unfortunately, too many of them are wrapped up in political maneuvers.

For instance, steelworkers laid off last summer from Keewatin Taconite are hitting the end of their unemployment benefits. Another batch of workers from KeeTac and United Taconite in Eveleth will see their benefits expire in February, before the delayed start of this year’s legislative session. Gov. Mark Dayton and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk have expressed interest in a special session to extend these benefits while also addressing racial disparities for residents of the Twin Cities metro area.

As you might imagine, Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt saw that list and put conditions on the session. He said he’d agree to meet on those issues, so long as the state permits two controversial projects, PolyMet and the Sandpiper pipeline.

In other words, the things he asked for were very specifically designed to blow up any reasonable chance of passing the necessary legislation. You could argue, I suppose, that PolyMet and Sandpiper were “jobs” projects that could provide aid to workers on the Range, but both would become so ensnared by resulting lawsuits that any practical benefit would evaporate. Moreover, as Daudt knew, Iron Ranger DFLers would need Republican votes to get the unemployment extensions, something they’d could use for political gains yet unknown.

This issue remains unsettled. Meantime, at the federal level, U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan (D-MN8) has proposed a dramatic new bill that would halt ALL foreign steel imports for five years. That is HUGE! In fact, that would definitely reopen all the mines. It would start a trade war, of course. And American manufacturers will kill it in committee before it ever becomes law. But to Nolan’s credit it is something that would work, for us, for a while, in a limited sort of way.

But what about economic diversification? That’s what we really need. Well, by its very nature, economic diversification is a lot trickier than extending unemployment benefits. Yet, State Rep. Erik Simonson (DFL-Duluth) made a major proposal for economic diversification soon after last week’s idling announcement about Northshore Mining.

“While there has been a segment of lost population, there is no reason why we cannot create a more stable economic outlook that diversifies local revenues, increases educational and job training opportunities, and provides stability in job growth that will allow families to prosper on the Iron Range,” Simonson said in a press release.

The highlights, according to the same release, include:

  • An immediate appropriation to Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development of up to $15 million dollars
  • Opening and staffing a regional MN DEED office in a centrally located range city, focusing on long term planning for economic expansion and re-development
  • Creating a regionally focused economic re-development team, with experts representing, at a minimum:
    • The IRRRB
    • Local business organizations to include all types of current industry
    • Local labor organizations
    • State level labor organizations
    • MN DEED
    • Available national employment and economic development experts
    • Others as deemed fitting and necessary
  • This legislation will include language directing MN DEED and this team to address the future economy of the Iron Range, to include ideas of supplementing taconite operations, and more importantly a structured plan to diversify the regional economy. There will be a report required to be presented to the Governor and the legislature, no later than February 1st, 2017.

Now, the concept sounds great. However, in terms of execution, will a committee and DEED office formed by the state legislature, proposed by a Duluth legislator, truly shape local outcomes? With any hope of Iron Range legislative support? I would predict turf wars. I might be able to endorse the idea with some explanation and effective partnerships, but it’d be a harder sell to the people in office. You can isolate parochialism, or you can destroy it. Holding its hand and asking it to change doesn’t work. I’ve done a fair amount of experimentation on this issue.

As I’ve said, the economic problems on the Iron Range are big and complex. Actually, I’ve been saying this for many years. I don’t believe in any “quick fix,” whether that comes from nonferrous mining or even my beloved rural broadband issue. There are only steps the federal government, the state or our communities could take that might help, might hurt, or might waste time.

I believe that economic diversification will come to the Iron Range when:

  • High speed broadband internet is ubiquitous in towns and the country.
  • Schools prepare children to think critically with an eye for entrepreneurship and creativity.
  • Locals become willing to accept new people and ideas.
  • Dying businesses, groups and organizations are allowed to die, creating space for new ones to take over.
  • Empty buildings and spaces are used for low-cost business incubation and community improvement efforts. City councils must focus on the guts of their towns, not the edges.
  • Spending is focused mostly on small projects with specific, permanent community outcomes.
  • Locals become willing to spend their TIME on the Range. Everyone loves a trip to Duluth or the Twin Cities, but the Range must become a destination, not just for tourists, but for its own residents.

Doesn’t feel like something a committee or an 8-4:30 office with fluorescent lighting can fix. It’s the kind of thing each of us can fix in our own actions and in making connections with like-minded individuals in our communities.

Everybody wants to save the Range? Actually I don’t believe that. Our region’s political tactics in recent decades has created a Nixonian enemies list. The Range can’t really be saved until people who live here want to save it. Once that happens — and it will, in time — the rest will come.


  1. Independant says

    Well written and I agree with most everything you are saying in this piece Aaron but why the need to throw in the nonsense about “I suppose, that PolyMet and Sandpiper were “jobs” projects… “. Of course they are jobs projects!

    • Of course they are, if they actually were to break ground upon legislative action. My point was that this kind of political shortcut wouldn’t bring us closer to those things happening — there’s a reason permitting is a process; it’s to avoid legal injunctions.

      • In addition to the likelihood that expedited state permitting of mining would just lead to a new court fight delaying any activity for three to five years, realistic assessment of international conditions shows that new mining of new minerals would not help the Range to weather a crisis such as is occurring now.

        As far as job creation, the same market forces and world economic conditions that are crushing the iron mining industry on the Range apply to mining for copper and nickel. Once again, Range mines would be the highest cost international source of minerals. If Polymet and Twin Metals were open today, they would be closed. In fact, the owners of Twin Metals have announced a hiatus in efforts to open the mine, leading to a new crisis in maintaining their mining rights because of inability to exercise them.

        Further dependence on mining as an economic resource will just magnify the periodic downturns associated with market fluctuation. Right now, copper and nickel mining being open would just mean there would be another 300 to 500 miners laid off on the Range.

  2. ” You can isolate parochialism, or you can destroy it. Holding its hand and asking it to change doesn’t work. I’ve done a fair amount of experimentation on this issue.”

    You have made sense. As I see it we have a system dependent on mining dollars with power and money. The IRRRB. It weaves political power together with and makes dependent upon mining money. Want to get reelected? Grant favors to the ATV group/township/business individual …. But make sure they and everyone else know good ole Rep Whosit, Tomassoni, Senator Pudnick or Bakk brought the bacon home, left the mouse on the pillow or the present under the tree. And bought it with mining money.

    The official mini legislature on the range has mining my net as its life blood.

    The system is hooked on mining.

  3. Has mining as its life blood. (Darn autocorrect)

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