From twilight darkness comes new dawn

Reclaimed mineland near the the Minntac plant in Mt. Iron, MN, in 2015. PHOTO: James St. John, Flickr CC

Reclaimed Iron Range mine land near the the Minntac plant in Mountain. Iron, Minnesota. PHOTO: James St. John, Flickr CC

Last weekend, Star Tribune columnist D.J. Tice penned a piece entitled “The long twilight struggle of the Iron Range.” Certainly aware he’d elicit grumbling from Iron Rangers, Tice’s argument was that the Iron Range has been in a managed decline for several decades. He asks why we debate paying for miners to stay unemployed in this region when workers are badly needed in other parts of the state?

That’s a question sure to cause folks here on the Mesabi to bristle. Nevertheless, I do recommend reading Tice’s column before forming your own opinion. He raises an important point that I will address here today.

Tice notes the decades he’s covered the boom and bust stories centered upon the Iron Range economy (his first stories written on now-archaic typewriters). Tice also cites Jeff Manuel’s book “Taconite Dreams,” which ties the decline of the Iron Range mining district to the broader story of American deindustrialization.

In that book, which I wrote about in December 2015, Manuel describes the unique, almost Herculean efforts Minnesota has undergone to preserve its iron mining industry and the Iron Range region.

Here’s what Tice said about that:

Has it worked? Well, the Range has weathered deindustrialization as well as any part of the Rust Belt and better than many. But that means its decline mainly has been slowed and managed — rather as generations of farm policy and subsidies have merely slowed and managed the decline of family farming and the rural and small-town civilization it supported across vast swaths of Minnesota and America.

In that way, maybe the Range isn’t so exceptional after all. Economic sectors, regions and ways of life perish, often after painful lingering. Minnesota must decide whether it means to continue the struggle to resist deindustrialization on the Iron Range, and at what point it makes sense to let economic job-market signals be heard loud and clear.

The challenge is also, as Manuel says, to help sustain “dignity and respect” for people “making their lives … amid long-term economic decline.”

I don’t view Tice’s comments as mean-spirited. Rather, I think we of Northern Minnesota would do well to understand them.

For as long as I can remember, the culture of the Iron Range has been centered around one of two paths: “Making a go of it” and “Leaving.” These paths each come with social baggage. For educated creative types, leaving has always been easier (often the only real path to meaningful employment). But for tradespeople and those most motivated by outdoor recreation or closeness to family, staying is an option. And, if you were wily and willing, one could make a go of it.

All the people that left might have liked to stay, if only there was work for them, or might like to come back now but can’t. Their choice was not really a choice. But for the folks lucky enough to land in the mines or a related industry, leaving was purely a choice, never required.

What Tice points out is that the economy is now telling people to leave. But that message is landing upon a group of people raised to fight leaving this place. Furthermore, if you’re laid off from a job that pays more than the ones in the cities, where is your motivation? Yet, most true resistance has nothing to do with the numbers, but with people and their way of life. As Tice quotes, “dignity and respect” become the motivators, not fitting like pegs into the holes of a global economy.

But that only holds for a generation. Maybe two, if you’re willing to suffer.

This is merely part of the dynamic pressure within the larger challenge for people on the Iron Range. It’s not that newspaper columnists are telling us to leave, it’s that the old arguments that have worked for the Range are not likely to work much longer.

  • Mining is boom and bust. We’ll be back. (True, and we will, with fewer workers, fewer plants and more automation).
  • Once steel imports are back under control, we’ll be safe. (While we can address illegal dumping, U.S. port cities are preparing to take on much more steel this century, not less).
  • Mining sends so much money to the Twin Cities that they should thank us. (They certainly should, but mining revenue is a very small slice of the state budget).
  • The Iron Range decides elections. (Perhaps true when the region delivered countless late night elections to old school DFLers, but certainly not now that our region has lost half its population and aged out of its prime).
  • Our schools are great. Our great-grandparents built wonderful towns and institutions (all of which are 100 years old and increasingly broke).
  • Nonferrous mining could bring a new future for this region. (It could, if prices were higher. But they aren’t. Nonferrous mines will face the same economic pressures to automate and cut costs as iron mines and could find themselves just as idle as UTac or KeeTac when prices stay low for the next decade as some predict).

I’m not saying all this because I like it. This is our objective reality now.

If you want to get mad about something, join me in getting mad that we aren’t doing more to invest in our communities before we experience this huge change. If our towns looked better they could attract new people, tourism and industry. If we were better aware of technology’s role in today’s economy, we’d be ready to compete.

Frankly, it’s time to generate action and community development no longer fixated upon the past. Not just in elected office, but on the streets of our towns. For a fraction of what was lost in chasing smokestacks over the past 20 years, we could remove blight, erect public art, convert empty space into community gathering places, and dress up the main highways of the long and narrow Iron Range corridor.

We could prioritize entrepreneurship and welcoming new people to our area. We could invest in our young people’s educations, incentivizing them to start businesses in their hometowns. We could actually compete with our raw materials by adding value to them here in Minnesota.

We could do something that YOU think up — not me, and not some paid consultant either.

The Iron Range stands at a crossroads. One version of the future is where D.J. Tice is absolutely right. Eventually people will get sick of this and give up. That’s probably the default. The other version is one in which our communities decided to accept change, embrace the values we hold most dear, and prepare our children for a future in which “work in the mines, work for cheap, or leave” is no longer the unspoken truth.

How much do we want the second path? How hard are we willing to work? How much change can we tolerate before animosity boils over?

These are questions that will be answered in the next couple years, verified by the results of the 2020 census.


  1. David Gray says

    I’m certainly not eager to participate in the depopulation of the Cuyuna Range or see it on the Mesabi or Vermillion. Ultimately the urban audience Tice writes for is in tune with his vision. Depopulate northern Minnesota and leave a caretaker staff that can facilitate tourists from the Twin Cities and Rochester. Think of it as a Jurassic Park without the dinosaurs (or maybe even with dinosaurs if Mr. Rukovina sticks around, I say that with some affection). Pursuing policies which continue to concentrate population further in urban areas is unsound, certainly as a matter of human environmentalism. The answer is, as you’ve often noted, lies in increasing diversification. We need to do this while maintaining what exploitation of physical resources is economical. My children are the sixth generation of my family to be up here and we have no plans on evacuating.

  2. I did grumble after first reading the Tice article. Also received the “Taconite Dreams” book in November. I believe rangers will grumble about that too. Growing up on the Mesabi Range(and still here), they both speak to the truths of the past and future here. Good article, keep up the good work.

  3. Aaron, I LOVE this!!! People on the Iron Range need to open their eyes and realize the Iron Range needs a change…and QUICK.

  4. Neala Schleuning says

    An excellent review. There ARE alternatives to extraction industries. The state could contribute as well. SOMEBODY ought to be able to figure out how to put jobs on the Range. Unfortunately they may not pay as well as the mining companies did. Wages in the whole country have collapsed. The good old days are likely gone forever, unless new industry comes in that requires highly trained workers. And as I recall, Polymet won’t save the range. Those jobs are only expected to last 20 years. Then what? Try a different path.

  5. There are sparks of new life and new growth here and there, but certainly not much of that on the main drag of Virginia. Drove that route last evening. Yikes. Black holes. The little things that have energy and a spark of life that I know of seem to be away from Da (main) Range: Ely, Tower, Cook, Orr, Big Fork. But probably none of what I’m thinking of pays even a sub par salary. On the Other Hand, a couple of years ago, I did some on line research regarding job openings in the main Range Cities. There were several dozen openings for well educated people. Non mining positions, of course. So how do we get people to fill those jobs when our main streets look like ghost towns? Or do we just blame a couple of Big Box stores for that?

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