The most recent edition of the Timberjay caused me both amusement and bemusement. The front page was highlighted by the gleeful (my interpretation) report that Twin Metals took a major regulatory hit. My interpretation was reinforced by the editorial further urging Twin Metals to take a hike and make way for the new, environmentally-friendly economy. And on the same subject, albeit obliquely, was the in-depth Commentary by Tom Legg, discussing the sad issue of poverty in northeastern Minnesota. Based on his credentials, I accept his numbers, and it is important to note that the data were collected before the recent downturn in demand for iron ore.
I have become exasperated by the advocates of a stable, tourism/outdoor economy for northeastern Minnesota. There is no way that one, or even several Uber-Elys will provide sustainable wages for the current population of the Range. Just how many canoeists, birdwatchers, dogmushers, and snowmobilers will it take to employ thousands year-round?
Those data show that things are tough on the Range, even during the recent good times. I grew up on the Range, and experienced booms and busts. I remember both prolonged strikes and periodic layoffs. I came of age during the Eisenhower Recession, and as a result I and many of my peers emigrated to greener pastures. After we left, the Range recovered – many times over.
The key difference between then and now is increased productivity. Technocrats brag about how many fewer resources and employees are required to produce the same amount of product. A vivid example is the Soudan Underground Mine that opened in 1884 and closed in 1962. A bit over fifteen million tons of ore were shipped over the life of the mine. In contrast, Minntac can produce approximately 16 million tons of pellets annually. I don’t have the data to compare man-years per ton, but the peak production of the Soudan Mine was 1892, when it shipped over 568,000 tons of ore and employed over 1,800 men. In contrast, at full operation Minntac employs 1,500 miners; over 30 times greater productivity than Soudan. Obviously many fewer jobs are now available, even under robust economic conditions.
The Range is not unique. The need to support a higher population with fewer jobs because of increased productivity created the dire economic conditions in the Rust Belt, the coal-mining areas, and the Range – in short, throughout the U.S. Unfortunately the future is inevitable, and bleak. Under the best-case scenario, the population of the Range will adjust (downward), leading to economic viability (i.e., good jobs for all, end of poverty). In the worst-case, the population will not adjust and low-wage employment or unemployment will continue to fuel a downhill social spiral.
This is analogous to humans. “ Life is a terminal disease” and even our best attempts do not alter the eventual conclusion. Similarly, the Range is heading into an allegorical sunset. Increased mining activity, including copper-nickel mining, will delay the inevitable, but will not stop it. Realizing the inevitable does not mean rushing to the exit. In most cases prolonging a life is better than abruptly ending it, and easing the transition of the Range over a generation or two seems to me preferable to an abrupt crash.
Just don’t give me the BS that an embrace of a tourism/outdoor economy will solve current or future problems. I lament the inevitable. But that’s life.