Reason fails when a straw man needs a beating
Marshall Helmberger

It’s sometimes amusing to watch the games people play. And one of the perennial sources of entertainment in these parts is the setting up and beating down of the straw man.

In these parts, the straw man takes several forms, but is usually some variation on the evil federal bureaucrat, or worse, an environmentalist! The game typically begins with a hyperbolic local news report, which prompts wild rumors, followed by the inevitable knee jerk reaction from local politicians who approve yet another resolution expressing the usual outrage at the latest affront to common sense, decency, and the American way. Anyone associated with the straw man, of course, is branded an enemy of the people, whose concerns must be dismissed post haste, and with all appropriate prejudice.

It’s all as predictable as the sunrise, and the demonstration at the county board meeting last week in Ely went exactly according to script. It doesn’t even matter the issue, the game is really about demonstrating in no uncertain terms that only one particular worldview is acceptable up here—and that different perspectives (particularly anything tinted shades of green) will be quickly and summarily crushed.

In this case, the straw man took the form of a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, or PEIS, and the people who support studying what might happen if we turned a wide swath of the Superior National Forest into a landscape of open pits, mine spoils, and tailings basins, with the risk of acidic runoff just to ice the cake.

It’s the kind of straw man bound to excite local politicians right down to their toes, what with environmentalists, Forest Service bureaucrats, and even the possibility of (gasp) scientists getting involved. What could be more fear-inducing than science?

While each potential mine project would still have to do its own environmental impact study, the PEIS would take a broader look at the cumulative effects of potentially multiple projects and would become a valuable source of information in any future environmental reviews.

Two northeastern Minnesota Indian tribes, environmentalists, and dozens of scientists have requested such a study given the heightened interest in mining the Duluth Complex, which runs through portions of eastern St. Louis and much of central Lake and Cook counties.

Yet some local media sources predictably pounced and others were happy to pile on, suggesting that the study would take eons to complete and would inevitably delay the permitting of any new copper-nickel mines. “It’s just a delay tactic,” suggested many.

If so, it’s not a very good one. For one, a PEIS would almost certainly not delay anything. They are conducted separately and do not typically affect the timetable of existing or future project-specific environmental reviews.

Another well-known PEIS is a good example of that. Back in the 1990s, the state of Minnesota conducted a Generic Environmental Impact Statement (the GEIS process is Minnesota’s version of the PEIS) on timber harvesting. It took a few years to complete, but at no point did it delay the permitting of any new wood products plants. But the authoritative information gathered by the GEIS was widely used by companies and regulators as they conducted environmental review for subsequent wood plant expansions, and it undoubtedly saved money and improved review efficiency down the road, since the review of each individual plant could simply refer to the GEIS on a number of big picture issues.

In fact, the PEIS/GEIS process was developed primarily to increase the efficiency of environmental review, and reduce the need to continuously duplicate the same analysis in situations where a number of separate, but related, projects are anticipated in a region. A PEIS would likely save money and time, at least if a number of mines are eventually proposed in the Duluth Complex.

Unfortunately, none of this matters in the context of the current fight. Once a straw man has been fully stuffed and everyone has taken aim, there’s no point raising minor irritants, like facts or logic. By then, it’s time to just play ball.

County commissioners arrived at last week’s meeting armed with a resolution complete with unsubstantiated claims, including that the PEIS could affect not only future mining opportunities but “current mining and associated operations.”

I asked county administration if they had any information to support that contention, or if they had contacted the Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management to get a better idea of how a PEIS might actually work. Not surprisingly, the answer was no. It turns out the information was brought forward by Commissioner Keith Nelson, who relied on a resolution passed last month by the Ely City Council. But, as I said, fact-checking is unnecessary once a straw man is in play.

Beside, such over-the-top language got the desired rise out of environmentalists, who turned out in decent numbers to make their case, and they got a bit unruly when they realized that the county resolution was intended more as a stick-in-the-eye than a credible statement.

They should have known better, and their antics presented them with the decidedly unenviable task of having to listen to Commissioner Keith Nelson— a man who practically oozes condescension wherever he goes— deliver a dissertation on respecting others’ opinions. Imagine, Keith Nelson lecturing on respect! It’s better than political sport. It’s almost comedy!

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2 comments on this item

Straw man? Come on Marshall, have you been over medicating yourself with marijuana?

Good point Marshall but the problem is that, yes, the commission and most all of us don't really care what the content of the PEIS is but this is because that even if they performed the PEIS there would just be another layer that will be added on after that.

Let's face it - the environmentalist's goal is not to make sure this will be safe for the environment, their goal is to stop it completely and anyone who does not recognize this is living in la la land!

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