Copper-nickel mining advocates are urging the U.S. Forest Service to hold a so-called listening session in Ely to hear what Iron Rangers think about the renewal of two critical mineral leases for the Twin Metals project. It’s the usual political saber-rattling, intended to present area politicians as fighting to give a voice to the communities they represent.
We think the Forest Service would benefit from additional hearings. Holding one in Ely makes sense. Hold a third hearing in the Twin Cities, as well. We are talking about the Superior NATIONAL Forest, after all, not to mention a 1.1-million acre federal wilderness area that is the pride of millions of Minnesotans.
Let’s give everyone a say, but let’s not kid ourselves about who might be listening. When you rely on basic resource extraction as the basis of your economy, you have very little actual say over the future of your community. Iron Rangers should know that by now. China hiccups and the Iron Range taconite mines fall like dominoes, and panic sets in yet again.
Advocates of copper-nickel mining suggest it represents diversification. That’s nonsense. The same global forces that bring us boom and bust in the steel industry exert the same influence on most other base metals. Copper, in particular, is abundant and global production capacity far exceeds global demand, and will for the foreseeable future.
That’s why we’ve never viewed the Twin Metals project as anything other than a distant and highly speculative prospect. Even discounting the extraordinary environmental risks the project entails, the economics are, perhaps, the biggest challenge. What people in Ely or anywhere else in Minnesota think about it is irrelevant. When you opt to go down the mining road, you no longer have a voice. Those who want Ely’s economic future dominated by copper-nickel mining must acknowledge that—were it to happen— the reins of their community’s future would be in the hands of corporate accountants in London who couldn’t find Ely on a map.
If folks in Ely want a real voice over the community’s future, they need to start building that future themselves, which at least one side of the mining debate seems intent on doing. There is real creativity in Ely. There are entrepreneurs creating livable wage jobs, businesses, and institutions that can be sustained for the long run if we protect the assets that make Ely the iconic place that it is. Thanks largely to their efforts, and to the appeal of the wilderness lifestyle associated with the community, Ely’s economy is the most vibrant of any Iron Range city, and by a long shot.
Right now, and for the foreseeable future, all copper-nickel mining has to offer to Ely is decades of continued community division and uncertainty. Mayor Chuck Novak made reference to the divisions during this week’s rally in Virginia, although he seemed to cast the blame for the split on those who oppose copper-nickel mining.
Imagine the progress that Ely could make if the community wasn’t constantly working at cross-purposes? What if people who wanted to invest in a future for Ely that didn’t include a giant copper-nickel mine leaching toxins into the Kawishiwi River, had the certainty that their investment wouldn’t be undermined down the road?
Right now, the community is badly divided over a mining proposal that, at best, is 20 years away, and that, most likely, won’t happen at all. For those who enjoy the Iron Range tradition of battling straw men, that may be just fine, since it provides just one more opportunity to flail against environmentalists, the Forest Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, or any other group that might stand in the way of what some see as “progress.”
But for those who honestly want to continue to build a viable and sustainable economy in Ely, it’s resources and energy very poorly spent.