Spitting bile won’t bring economic success

PHOTO: Phil Whitehouse, Flickr CC-BY

Last week, the Mesabi Tribune reported that Huber Engineered Woods will build its next plant in Mississippi. Months ago they opted not to build that plant at Cohasset in northern Minnesota. Huber pulled out after a legal challenge from the neighboring Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe required them to submit more detailed environmental paperwork.

The story spurred a predictable outcome, evoking the Facebook angry faces, corporate rhetoric, and generalized scorn at the notion of environmental review that have defined Range discourse these last two decades.

But why would we expect any different? The article mostly just quoted our perpetually outraged local legislators and trade lobbyists, who all said some version of what they always say. 

Personally, I struggle being angry and frustrated all the time. It’s not good for me. Sometimes, finding a new approach relieves my discontent.

Between the botched Huber project in Cohasset and lost permits at Glencore’s mining proposal near Hoyt Lakes, we might learn something. In both cases, tribal rights won out over unsubstantiated company promises. A majority of Range voters might choose to believe distant corporate overlords, but that doesn’t negate the legal rights of those who do not.

Now, I’m not a particularly good environmentalist. My family’s carbon footprint resembles that of a brontosaurus. My ancestors came to northern Minnesota to work, plying ancient trades as mechanics, teamsters and miners. I live deep in the woods, burning gas and oil every day. My cell phone uses minerals I can’t pronounce. Maybe I’m not an environmentalist at all. But that doesn’t change reality.

Northern Minnesota’s Ojibwe bands aren’t the arbitrary obstructionists that mining and timber interests often portray them to be. These are sovereign governments of people who were here before the timber and mining industries, and who will outlast those industries. Tribes have legal standing on environmental process, and won’t relinquish those rights because a state senator yelled himself pink.

If Ojibwe treaty rights can be discarded, so can any other rights. Are money and power the only arbiters of policy? If so, most of us will find ourselves on the outside looking in, no matter our skin color. 

Since the dawn of capitalism on this continent, people of northern Minnesota contended with challenging economic conditions. This is true whether we live in Eveleth or Onigum. Up and down. Boom and bust. We share these experiences.

We should be rightly concerned that the powerful deem the people of northern Minnesota less valuable than the logs and ore that define our manufactured regional identity. When companies are denied logs and ore, the powerful speak out. When people are denied health care, affordable housing and dignity, the powerful suddenly show remarkable restraint of tongue and pen. 

So here are some thoughts from little old me after studying 130 years of Iron Range history and covering the last 20 years of mining news.

If a company needs a shortcut around environmental review, we should be careful about working with that company. If a company can’t reveal the scope of its plans in official paperwork, what they withhold is relevant to our interests. Trying to do something so fast that our neighbors won’t notice indicates something at least marginally sketchy. 

Saying these things will not end mining or logging. It’s just what we should glean from past events and present common sense. Added clarity and specific protections will raise the standards of these important industries. Communicating in good faith with tribal communities over time, not just when we need a permit by next Friday, will yield dividends for all. Likewise, sharing the economic benefits of new projects might prove a fair offering.

Yes, working with people who see the world differently is hard, but building relationships between tribes and local communities will take this region much farther than spitting bile and repeating failures. We share the water, land and air of northern Minnesota, and our future is one and the same.

Aaron J. Brown

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 Saturday, July 15, 2023 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.


  1. fred schumacher says

    Missing in all the brouhaha was the opposition by the Solway Norbord OSB plant to the Cohasset project. Norbord said there wasn’t enough timber for another OSB plant. I think Huber reevaluated the numbers and came to the same conclusion but threw the blame on environmentalists. Huber left in a huff over a minor legal requirement — the judge said do your due diligence — as a cover. Around here in northern St. Louis County we’re seeing more semi loads with small diameter trees. They’re being harvested too young. Note that the old Potlatch OSB plant in Cook was supposed to be turned into a composite siding plant by Louisianna Pacific but nothing has become of it. I think they were planning on bringing trees down from Canada by rail to Cook, but Trump’s trade war with Canada ended that.

  2. Mark H Jacobs says

    There is no shortage of timber in MN. We are harvesting far less than we were 20-years ago. The GEIS on timber harvesting, completed in the mid-1990’s, used 4-million cords/year as the baseline for the study and determinied that (with a number of mitigating strategies) a bit over 5-million cords/year could be sustainable.. In recent years the annual timber harvest has been under 3-million cords/year. I suspect that Norboard and others were opposed because it would be competition for the “aspen resource” and drive up prices. IMO, we need to recruit mills that are not so “aspen centric” and will utilize tree species that are not in such high demand locally.

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