At last week’s forum on mining and its effects on the Lake Superior basin, both pro and con, two people on opposite sides of the mining question offered up perspectives that I took to be two sides of the same coin.
Bob Tammen, the environmental activist from Soudan, described the Resource Curse, the seeming economic paradox that regions with abundant, non-renewable natural resources, like oil or minerals, tend to experience lower rates of economic growth and greater instability than other regions.
Tammen likes to point out that Virginia sits surrounded by operating taconite mines, yet, like most Iron Range communities, routinely experiences higher unemployment than the state or national average. Tammen’s point is that mining isn’t the economic savior that many believe it is.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, LaTisha Geitzen, chief spokesperson for PolyMet Mining, contends that in the absence of mining, the Iron Range would be a chain of ghost towns. In other words, according to Geitzen, mining is the life force of the economy on the Mesabi Range, and it could be the chief economic driver for new development along the Duluth Complex, if plans for copper-nickel mining in the area move forward.
Surprisingly, both could very well be right because both are describing a similar dynamic. Mining can be a huge generator of wealth, and there is no doubt that mining can bring significant economic benefits. At the same time, mining economies are inherently unstable, prone to boom and bust cycles, and are ultimately unsustainable. Geitzen’s vision of abandoned Iron Range cities post-mining is entirely plausible. The U.S., particularly the western half, is filled with ghost towns, and almost all of them are former mining locations. Remove the mining from a mining town, and things generally fall apart pretty quickly.
Some communities get their start in mining but have other attributes, like beautiful mountains, lakes, or historical architecture that make them attractive places to live even after the mines shut down for good. Communities like Telluride, Colo., Bisbee, Ariz., and Ely, Minn., are examples that come to mind.
Life post-mining isn’t a cakewalk, and in most cases the post-mining population is significantly less than during the boom years. Wages are typically lower, since such communities often turn to tourism, which is prone to seasonal ups-and-downs and often generates more part-time employment than full-time. But such economies aren’t subject to the boom and bust cycles typical of mining. Such communities attract people seeking satisfaction from intangibles, like quality of life, rather than the size of their paycheck. As one Elyite I know is fond of saying, “The view out my window is worth $50,000 a year, easy.” Add the $30,000 this fellow can scrape together in a typical year, and he feels like he’s a pretty rich man.
I make the same calculation myself all the time.
Such transitions aren’t always possible. A place like Ely has a better chance because it lies in the heart of the Minnesota North Country, with its lakes and pine forests. But I suspect the Mesabi Range will have a tougher time when the iron ore eventually plays out, or when the economy changes and demand dries up. The natural attributes the region once had are now buried under mile after mile of wasterock.
There are good arguments why this was necessary to the well-being of the entire United States. Iron Range steel was integral to the development of this country and built the ships, planes, and tanks that won World War II. But that doesn’t change the fact that the area is one long environmental sacrifice zone.
Communities on the old Vermilion Range escaped this fate because their mines were small in scale and underground. The ore was rich, which meant most of the rock mined ended up in boxcars heading south, rather than piled in man-made mountain ranges across thousands of acres of the natural landscape.
The debate over the development of a new copper-nickel range along the Duluth Complex is deeply embedded within this historical context. The quandary is, in accepting a new era of mining, do we risk turning a wide swath of the Superior National Forest into another sacrifice zone? And in so doing, do we threaten to undo those very attributes that have given Ely a second chance as a town with a future beyond mining?
The answer isn’t entirely clear. Some mining, particularly underground, may be possible without the environmental devastation we’ve seen on the Mesabi Range. But when we hear projections of thousands of mining jobs on the Duluth Complex, we need to understand that such estimates assume many, large-scale mining operations across the bulk of the complex. And given the low-grade ore involved, the amount of wasterock generated will permanently alter the landscape across tens of thousands of acres. These are physical realities that modern technology can do little to mitigate.
Does copper-nickel mining offer a temporary (albeit potentially decades-long) boost to our region’s economy now, but raise the risk that our communities eventually suffer the fate of many ephemeral mining communities in the longer term? Do we return to boom and bust, with periods of high wages, in place of a more stable tourism-dominated economy? None of us can really say at this point. Whichever way we go, making a living here in the North Country will likely always remain a challenge.