Water, land and climate

PHOTO: briandjan607, Flickr CC-BY-NC-SA
Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Mesabi Tribune.

An epic conflict shapes the future of northern Minnesota. But it doesn’t feel like a conflict. Rather, it feels like selling out and settling for less. And it might take 40 years before we know what hit us.

This battle gently boils in the rooms where estates are settled, where families decide how to pay for nursing homes, and where local governments struggle to maintain decaying infrastructure. It unfolds every time layoffs and budget shortfalls force the question, “What can be done?”

This year, rising numbers of global refugees, expanding inequality, a global pandemic, wildfires and intensifying storms made clear we are living through change. Call it whatever you want. Blame whomever you want. This change is undeniable. Like all change, these times bedevil us with questions of what we control and what we don’t.

Here’s my list of things we can count on: land, water, and climate change.

Let’s start with land. A century and a half ago most of northern Minnesota was taken from the Ojibwe people after a series of lopsided treaties. Homesteaders claimed some of the land, but lumber barons snatched most of it before clearcutting the valuable timber. The rich got richer when iron ore was discovered beneath parts of the former forest. Today, mining companies and fee holders still own most of the Mesabi Iron Range’s private land, having extracted multiple fortunes from the trees and rocks.

What have we learned? Very little it would seem. Simple math reveals that the labor that built a nation and that remains in service today never gains the same security and prosperity as the owners. The longer Americans work the more we feel this in our bones.

This is true not just in mining, but in health care, retail, and virtually any profitable industry. In fact, this problem is getting worse. Income inequality now stands at its highest level since the 1920s right before the Great Depression.

Nevertheless, nearly all political attention in northern Minnesota remains fixated on mining and resource extraction. It’s true that ores remain in the ground, including both our venerable Mesabi iron ore and other minerals like copper and nickel. But automation and consolidation ensure that future mines will use less labor and provide no great new tax windfall for communities, if new projects happen at all.

At some point, perhaps by the time today’s kindergartners enter the workforce, the surface rights of today’s mining land will become more valuable than the mineral rights. And who will own most of the land? Not the people, and often not even private individuals. Corporations, hedge funds, and creditors will control the land.

Related to land, consider the social stratification happening off the iron formation.  You hear this story all the time: Back in the 1930s, great-gramps saved a couple hundred bucks of miner’s wages to buy 20 acres on a lake. Built a cabin. Family needed money in the 1980s so they sold it for a few grand to some guy from the Twin Cities. He put a $200,000 house on it; now the place is worth half a mil.

We aren’t done telling that story. The next generation will soon face an unprecedented crunch.

The earning power of millennials runs 20 percent less than that of baby boomers at the same age, according to a Nov. 5, 2019 CNBC report. Even more troubling is an Oct. 12 Business Insider story, “Millennials dominate the U.S. workforce, but they’re still 10 times poorer than baby boomers.” Author Hillary Hoffower details research showing that millennials — all of them currently adults of working age — start with less money and more debt than their parents at the same age.

There are several reasons for this. Many jobs that boomers held as young people have been automated or downsized. Service sector jobs have multiplied, but pay less and typically reject unions that would improve wages and benefits. College and health care costs rose faster than incomes.

Why does this matter? We’re counting on the next generation to buy and maintain the property that previous generations built. Rising inequality will make it difficult for the next generation of northern Minnesotans to keep the old land. That means that lakeshore and country land will fall to the wealthy. Property in town will plummet in value, which will limit the tax base of the communities where the working class and poor will have to live.

Now let’s talk about water. Northern Minnesota’s debate over clean water, especially when it’s framed as the enemy of jobs, seems hopelessly stuck. But even if we can set aside the issue of mitigating pollution from mining, we are still left with a question. Do our state and local governments have the fortitude to stand up for our water when there is demand to pump it to other parts of the country?

This isn’t some mad theory. Almost half the country lives in places where water supplies are running out. When they come for the water are we prepared to barter in ways that protect our broader population, or will we simply sell out to some private company in exchange for the promise of a few jobs? Again, we’ve seen from current rhetoric we are loath to question such claims when it comes to oil and minerals.

Climate change trends advance clearly with ample observable evidence. By 2040, just 20 years from now, Northern Minnesota will lie within the most temperate part of the United States. When the powerful come to take our land, our water, and our communities, what will we do?

This is about power: who has it, what they use it for, and who’s left out. In our rush to preserve a declining old economy we risk fumbling away our opportunities to prosper in the new one.

Land. Water. Climate. Northern Minnesota is the future. Whether or not northern Minnesotans actually lead this future is an open question. Right now, we seem in a hurry to give it away.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.



  1. We see something similar in western MN, where clean water is framed as the enemy of agribusiness. And yet, we can’t drink money.
    As you asked, what have we learned? Next to nothing, I would argue.

  2. Elanne Palcich says

    In general, people realize the value of something only after it’s gone.

  3. Fred Schumacher says

    Of course Millenials are worth less than Boomers. They have had fewer years to accumulate wealth. At their age I had $500 and a rusty car. Real money is not in resource extraction. It’s in value added processing. Mining is a one-time harvest. The world is littered with abandoned mining towns on dead end roads.

    • The point is the millennials have less than boomers had at the same age. $500 in 1970 is $3500 today, and a lot of millennials don’t have any car.

      Otherwise your points are good. Good article today in Minnesota Post about the evolution of Minnesota’s workforce and economy. Spoiler, the state has gone from median incomes 15% below the national average to 10% above while moving from extraction and packing to high-end tech.

  4. Currently, the water in the Great Lakes Basin, which includes the southern half of St. Louis County, the southeastern third of Lake County, most of Cook County, much of Carlton County, and small parts of neighboring counties, as well as Northern Wisconsin and most of Michigan, cannot be piped or shipped outside the Basin due to international and interstate legal agreements and federal and international laws.

    However, as Aaron says, the water in the basin, which contains 95% of the fresh water in the US under most conditions, is likely to be coveted by other states, especially Southern and Western states suffering from growing shortages of water due to worsening draught, overuse of both surface water and aquifers, and inappropriate growth in environments unsuited for it.

    In light of this, the elevation of Barrett to the Supreme Court takes on added meaning. It is increasingly common to make decisions like the allocation of Great Lakes water not in democratic ways involving elected officials, but through fiat by administrative decisions and court decisions, bypassing opposition by the electorate.

    I could easily see a future 5-4 Supreme Court decision ruling that Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona, and California can take our water, shortly followed by another ruling closing down mining and paper production in order to protect that water for the huge numbers of people in other states dependent on it.

  5. From a practical matter I just don’t see water from Minnesota being pumped to, say, Arizona or California. Even a small river’s worth of water would require an unbelievable amount of energy to pump there.

    I did the numbers once. Engineers do that sort of thing when they’re looking for something to do. That small river, the size of the Prarie River, would mean nothing out west.

    Even stripping the water to hydrogen and oxygen and pipelining the hydrogen there to be burned for water is a non starter. Removing the salt from nearby seawater looks much better.

    Maybe something could be done to this side of the Rockies but even that is questionable.

  6. Chris Baldwin says

    I am a recently retired mining engineer having worked in 12 different open pit and underground mines across the US over the past 45 years, now residing in Hibbing. The sulfide minerals of the Duluth Complex are significantly different than the oxidized low sulphur iron ore minerals of the Mesabi Range. The resulting waste dumps, tailings ponds, and abandoned mines from sulfide minerals will be a huge source of Acid Mine Drainage, sulfuric acid, causing a legacy of pollution like the abandoned Anaconda Berkely Pit in Butte, Montana. Unless the residents of Minnesota agree on very stringent sulfide wastes sequestration requirements for copper-nickel mining , the mining of this Duluth Complex area and resulting ore processing will have a similar impact that Reserve Mining created, which for 25 years pumped 67,000 tons per day of raw tailings directly into Lake Superior before being forced to stop (see picture). If this area is mined, these sulfide wastes need to be isolated in a geologic sarcophagus in perpetuity, to protect the headwaters of the greatest source of fresh water on the planet.

    Is the sulfide mining, processing and waste storage technology capable of this requirement of long term pollutant containment or does the long term volatile business climate of commodity extraction prohibit a very long term investment capital recovery to make mining profitable and not leave a walkaway legacy like Reserve Mining did to Lake Superior? Yes, the technology is available and expensive, but is the will of Minnesota residents to demand and enforce compliance there to maintain guard rails on a foreign miner?

    Typically, once sulfide mining permits have been issued and mining has begun, like Polymet or Twin Metals, amendments to the mine permits will be requested, expanding the original impact footprint, along with the threat of shutting down and jobs loss if the permits are not granted. The revolving door of regulators will certainly grant expansion and the resulting legacy cleanup will be left to our grandchildren to cleanup, or not, as in the case of Reserve tailings in Lake Superior which cannot be mitigated.

    We need this conversation elevated to truth and not political mudslinging, it is far too important. I am not against mining, but I am not for continuing irresponsible mining leaving sacrifice zones on the planet in the form of Superfund cleanup sites left for taxpayers to pay for. Minnesota can and should provide valuable resource extraction but not without World Class ‘Guard Rails’ rules to follow that cannot be wriggled out of like walkaway Essar or Reserve bankruptcy.

    The direct and indirect impact threat to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness sulfide mining directly upstream poses, would be devastating under current mining practices being proposed. New sulfide mining and processing technology and practices like lime neutralization, cementation, and topographic isolation of tailings are available and costly and should be proven in a low risk area before being attempted on the border of the BWCA. The volatility of the economy and especially the steel and copper commodities market that is influenced by foreign dumping, need to be included along with political factors in the analysis of environmental risk and future clean up costs left for Minnesota pay for.

    I once heard, “This is complex issue and if it was simple, you wouldn’t need an engineer…”

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