According to critics, legislation recently introduced in Washington by Congresswoman Betty McCollum that would create a sulfide mining exclusion zone around a portion of the Boundary Waters Canoe …
According to critics, legislation recently introduced in Washington by Congresswoman Betty McCollum that would create a sulfide mining exclusion zone around a portion of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, represents a threat to the region’s “way of life”.
Such claims, unfortunately, are as predictable as they are inaccurate.
First, let’s be clear. Iron mining has been underway in one form or another in our region for nearly 140 years. While today it represents a relatively small piece of the region’s employment picture, it certainly is a way of life for many Iron Range families. Fortunately, McCollum’s legislation would not change that fact. McCollum’s bill specifically permits iron or taconite mining in the roughly 234,000 acres of the Rainy River watershed covered by the measure.
In other words, the Iron Range’s “way of life” remains fully intact under this legislation.
What’s more, the way of life that has increasingly come to dominate in places like Ely would continue as well, free from the threat of disruption posed by a sulfide-based copper-nickel mine. While Ely was once a mining town, it’s been more than half a century since the last mine closed. While many in Ely are justifiably proud of the community’s mining history, it is history, nonetheless. Mining communities ultimately have two choices— become a ghost town when the mine closes, or transition to something else. In the case of Ely, that transition has been years in the making but has made tremendous progress, despite the reluctance of some in the community to acknowledge a future reliant on anything but basic resource extraction.
We certainly understand that many supporters of copper-nickel mining near Ely envision a kind of economic renaissance from the proposed Twin Metals mine. But copper is an extremely common commodity, found throughout the world, which makes its price continually tied to the vagaries of global supply and demand. As a proposed underground operation tapping a low-grade deposit in a developed country, any future copper-nickel mine near Ely will be among the highest-cost operations anywhere in the world. Which is another way of saying it will be the first to shut down every time there’s so much as a hiccup in copper prices. Even if the Twin Metals mine were in existence today, it likely would have been closed for the past several years as a result of low metal prices.
Relatively brief periods of employment, followed by years-long layoffs, is the most likely “way of life” we can expect for workers at any such mine near Ely. Add to that the risk that the mine’s presence will discourage the modest but steady influx of new residents and investment to the area, and you have the making of recession rather than renaissance.
That’s why the region needs more rational and fact-based discussion of both the environmental and economic merits of copper-nickel mining just upstream of the BWCAW.
While some in the area refuse to acknowledge it, there is lasting and sustainable economic value in protecting the Boundary Waters watershed from a most dangerous form of mining. In communities along the edge of the Boundary Waters and the Superior National Forest, we have seen noticeably higher rates of in-migration of residents from other areas than most other non-metro counties in Minnesota. High percentages of those migrants are professional and well-educated, and bring relatively high incomes, either through ongoing earnings or investments, that are spent in the regional economy.
We’re not talking about relatively low-paying tourism jobs versus mining employment. Tourism jobs are a nice bonus, but we’ve never viewed them as the basis for a vibrant, year-round economy. The jobs lost from short-circuiting amenity-based economic activity include the often high-paying professions that these new residents bring with them, along with jobs that provide support services for these new residents, including sectors like construction, real estate, finance, insurance, building supplies, and home furnishings.
These are solidly middle-class jobs we’re talking about here. This isn’t a question of mining jobs versus tourism jobs. That’s a false argument.
Unfortunately, as long as some continue to portray any effort to protect the progress that places like Ely have made as a fundamental threat to a perceived Iron Range “way of life,” or issue senseless calls for boycotts against valuable regional businesses that might have a somewhat different view on the subject, it will be difficult to have a meaningful discussion about what kind of future truly provides for the long-term economic health of the region. It’s time to change the conversation, or we risk being ruled by our emotions rather than our intellect.