Study adds new fuel to mining vs. tourism debate

Paddle boarders navigate the Pennington Pit at the Cuyuna State Recreational Area near the twin towns of Crosby and Ironton, Minnesota. (PHOTO: Aaron J. Brown)

Iron Range newspapers and TV stations have given considerable air time to a study sponsored by a pro-mining group showing that while tourism provides more jobs in Northern Minnesota, mining, railroading and shipping provide far better paying jobs.

From the Duluth News Tribune:

The [Mining Minnesota] study found current iron ore mining and directly related industries such as railroads and shipping employ 5,140 people earning $419 million annually, when all of the region’s operations are open and running. That compares to about 6,400 direct tourism jobs that total $116 million in earnings annually.

The mining jobs average more than four times the annual pay of the average tourism job, the study found.

“There’s a significant difference in the return of different industries. You have much more of an economic impact from mining jobs than tourism jobs,” Mark Schill, [polling firm] Praxis vice president and the study’s author, told the News Tribune.

My social media feed is full of people saying “Duh.” I suppose I agree with them. Mining jobs pay the best because it’s the most profitable industry we have and boasts the strongest private sector unions. Duh. What bugs me is the way people seem to think this changes anything about our situation. The study seems crafted to support a widespread tenet of conventional thinking. What’s interesting to me is everything the study doesn’t show about the economy of Northern Minnesota.

The threats of automation and globalization to mining jobs (and many others). Small town struggles to pay for infrastructure repairs, despite relatively high iron mining production. Challenges that keep people from starting new businesses, such as health care costs, startup funding, or lack of business skill or networks.

As the DNT also points out:

The study didn’t look at other large industries in the region, such as health care, which directly accounts for about 33,233 jobs in the Arrowhead region, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, or about six times the number of mining jobs.

Government workers and educators, and retail/service workers also outnumber the mining and tourism fields.

There are 200,000 people living in Northeastern Minnesota, depending on where you draw the borders. The fact that 5,000-some work in mining and 6,000-some work in tourism shows that pitting these two fields against each other (or even relying on them together) is a limiting, arguably self-defeating strategy for the future.

Of course we could welcome new mining (we don’t control that, by the way; investors do). Of course we could do more tourism. Of course we could do both. But in terms of our economic future, if we don’t address the much larger need for other economic activity and the lack of sustainability in government and retail sectors, we’re going to keep struggling as a region.

I understand the argument that a mining boom brings more economic activity. I would rebut that such activity is limited and often temporary. We have living examples of this over the past 30 years of booms and (mostly) busts in the industry.

If you’re the one out of ten Northern Minnesotans who draw paychecks from tourism or admittedly larger paychecks from mining, you’ve might have a lot invested in this study. The rest of us on the Iron Range — and there are many more of us — need to demand more than just false choices put out by politically motivated groups.


  1. I think a key takeaway from this analysis can be found in this line, “when all of the region’s operations are open and running,” because when they are not running, I’m pretty sure that those annual earnings are a bit lower.

  2. Richard Ketring says

    Has there been any analysis of the projected CN inter modal terminal and the economic impact? Also I thought the Iron range RR, the DM&IR was remote controlled units or was that plan scrapped?

  3. The more value your service (or product) adds – mining, tourism or blogging – the more you’ll get paid. Add more measurable value to whatever it is you do, the more people will pay you. It always works, is simple, but bears repeating. It works for the Range, the Cities or North Dakota.

    Two major factors which will drive down demand for your service or product are 1) increased supply of people willing and capable of providing the same product or service as you, 2) barriers which keep pay artificially high (for groups of people) for the value the group adds…all of whom within the group supposedly provide the same service/product, but don’t. The value of individuals within the group inherently differs, but they’re all paid the same. i.e. unions, tenure, minimum wage, etc.

  4. Reid Carron says

    Aaron has written another thoughtful piece, but on one point he is simply wrong: “Of course we could welcome new mining (we don’t control that, by the way; investors do).” The Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters–supported by scores of thousands of Minnesotans and our fellow public-land-owners from across the United States–are determined to prevent sulfide-ore copper mining from occurring in the watershed of the Boundary Waters–investors be damned. Our–your–United States government is conducting a study right now to determine whether to allow such mining on federal lands in the Boundary Waters watershed. WE THE PEOPLE can control the outcome of that study through relentless devotion to sound science, economics, and policy, and through powerful fact-based advocacy.

    • Reid – I like the sounds of your “devotion to sound science, economics, policy, and through fact-based advocacy”, but since Twin Metals hasn’t been allowed to propose much, it seems like the anti-mine people will continue to talk in generalizations and resort to photos of Mount Polley or some other disaster that has nothing to do with mining in Minnesota and try to strike fear into anyone they can. I’d love to hear a debate between knowledgeable people on Twin Metals, but in the end, I don’t anticipate getting it. I am open to not supporting Twin Metals, but as far as I’m concerned, the US Congress BWCAW Act passed based on the fact that the Twin Metals land could be mined in the future. Until I hear something more definitive that convinces me Twin Metals will produce an unacceptable environmental consequence to the BWCA, I intend to support Twin Metals right to mine and their right to propose a mine plan.

      • Reid Carron says

        Thanks for writing, Gray Camp. If you review the materials on the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters website and pay attention to the minerals segregation and EIS process that the Forest Service and BLM have undertaken, you will see and hear reasoned presentations by people who understand the Superior National Forest/Boundary Waters ecosystem, the economy of the Arrowhead, and the nature of sulfide ore mining. With respect, your position is a classic example of “begging the question”–that is, you argue that Twin Metals ought to be allowed to present a plan to show that it can mine in the watershed of the Boundary Waters without doing harm, when in fact the question is whether a mine–any mine–should be allowed in this place. History shows that sulfide-ore mining always pollutes–always. Further, even if it were possible to miraculously avoid water pollution, it’s not possible to avoid the destruction of thousands of acres of public lands and the denial of access to those lands for hunting, snowmobiling, skiing, hiking, berry-picking, etc. It’s not possible to avoid the spillover surface effects into the Boundary Waters. It’s not possible to avoid the devastation of the value of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of homes and other real estate in the vicinity of the proposed mine. The only mine plan that would not do harm would be a plan for a mine that was invisible, soundless, dustless, noiseless, and left no footprint. The question under consideration is whether thousands of acres of public lands and the value of private property should be destroyed for a few jobs and to further enrich Chilean billionaires. The proper question is NOT what is the mine plan. The proper question, and the one under consideration by the Forest Service and the BLM, is whether the heart of the Superior National Forest should be turned into an industrial mining zone.

        • independent says

          Oh my lord…

        • Gray Camp says

          Reid, thanks for your response. I tried to make it through the documents on the website you mentioned. I picked a couple that sounded the most interesting and skimmed through them. It seems like these documents make assumptions about how Twin Metals would go about mining as a basis for their arguments. Some of these assumptions are probably from the pre-feasibility study, but many seemed to go beyond that. As a reader, I can’t go through and fact check everything that is written. Most of the documents are relying on eliciting fear of a disaster from the readers. It is tough for the public to know what to believe when they read these fact sheets or go to the Twin Metals website. All we are hearing is one side of the issue unchecked by the other side. What I really want to hear is a public debate. Take one to three of the professors who wrote these studies (or someone else) and have them publically debate the Twin Metals project with one to three people the Twin Metals team picks. If one side is unfairly stretching the truth or science, the other can call them on it, and the public can get a better idea what the real threats of this project are.

          Considering mining has been in the Ely area for a long time, and mineral rights have been out on the land in question for well over 50 years, the vastness of the alternative recreational areas surrounding Ely, and the likelihood there is a land swap if the project does go through, it is tough for me to get excited about losing a few thousand acres of recreational area or about some value being lost in a bunch of million dollar homes.

  5. independant says

    Haters gonna hate. Lets face it tourism jobs are not even in the same universe as mining industry jobs. Tourism jobs don’t even pay a livable wage let alone decent benefits.

  6. Gray Camp says

    Regarding mining and tourism being the only two industries listed in the study, whereas professions related to health care, government workers, educators, and retail positions are not: Mining and tourism are really the only two on that list that bring money into the region from the outside. The other classifications of employment seem reliant on people living in the area and providing service to them. On the one hand, I see Aaron’s argument that mining and tourism just make up a small chunk of our workforce, on the other hand, they along with possibly the forest industries are currently the primary industries to bring outside money into our region to fuel the need for people to live in the region and need health care, government services, education, and retail.

  7. Independent, “Haters gonna hate”, Seriously??? You really believe that people who are justifiably concerned about the safety of our waters and other environmental side effects particularly with copper-nickel mining are motivated by hate? That’s astonishing. People from many walks of life live here because they love our unique area and don’t want it destroyed as has happened in so many other areas. You might want to read “Flambeau Mine is Looking More Like a Toxic Playground”, City Pages, 4/18/17. Copper/nickel mining is a different animal whether you want to believe that or not. But you just go ahead and put all your faith and trust in venture/vulture capitalist corps to do the right things for the well-being of our communities and our land, wildlife and waters after they have moved on.
    “Haters gonna hate”. Projection, much?

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