KEEWATIN, Minn. — If there’s one thing a dozen Iron Rangers seemed intent on telling a visiting journalist from the Twin Cities last summer, it’s that they are Minnesotans, too.

Of course they care about their environment, they said. All Minnesotans do. Though they’re impatient with the pace of environmental permitting, they consider state regulators their allies in insisting that mining companies toe the line on water and air quality.

Of course they want good jobs, they said. All Minnesotans do. They aren’t seeking a handout. They’re glad to see a new Vikings stadium rise on the edge of downtown Minneapolis, they said, and hope that their region will soon see its own big job-producing project — the proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine in Hoyt Lakes.

Of course they feel tied to the Twin Cities. Friends and family live there, displaced from the Iron Range as mining employment plummeted from nearly 15,000 at its 1970s peak to about 4,500 today, and every related enterprise shrank, too. Rangers root for the Twins, the Wild and especially the Vikings. They’re proud of the metro area’s success and like to think their region has contributed to it — which it surely has — and can do so again.

They get the feeling, though, that the mutuality they feel with the rest of the state is not mutual. In particular, they worry that metro mistrust and misinformation could deny them the opportunity to reinvent the Iron Range one more time, much as it was in the 1950s and 1960s when mining of iron ore deposits gave way to taconite processing.

“People in the Cities see our area as recreation, a pristine place,” said Paul Clusiau, a teacher and Keewatin City Council member. “Or they see mining as a big cure-all, and think we’re living the dream up here. It’s just not true. … Mining is what we have to depend on.”

“And that’s a roller coaster,” chimed in city utilities clerk Sue Thronson.

They were among six civic leaders in Keewatin who described what it’s like to see their town’s major employer, U.S. Steel’s Keetac plant, suspend operations and lay off more than 400 workers at a time when the rest of the state is confronting an increasing labor shortage.

Since that conversation, the plight of the state’s iron-ore-related industries has deepened. Eight of the region’s 12 facilities have either closed or announced plans to shut down, producing an extended downturn in Iron Range employment unlike any seen since the early 1980s.

A glut of foreign-produced steel in the global market — including some dumped illegally in the U.S., the domestic steel industry says — is responsible for low prices, layoffs and plant closures.

Boom and bust have been a recurring part of Minnesota’s story since the Panic of 1857. But previous economic dips have been misery-loves-company experiences felt by the whole state. The one that’s making this a pinched and worried Christmas on the Iron Range is largely confined there. That’s undoubtedly adding to the sense already voiced last summer of being misunderstood by the rest of the state.

But as the Keewatin leaders acknowledged, that sentiment isn’t unique to the Iron Range.

“I think all of rural Minnesota has been left behind a little bit,” Clusiau said. “I think the Legislature could do more. This was supposed to be rural Minnesota’s year. Where? What happened? I didn’t see anything happen. Nobody can ever agree on a plan or a vision.”

The vision they said they want from the Legislature is much like the one other Greater Minnesotans describe. They seek better roads, starting with a four-lane link between Hibbing and Grand Rapids. They’d welcome help in funding transit services, particularly to serve elderly residents.

They’d like state assistance with school facilities, as would many rural towns around the state. Schools in Range communities were mostly built in the 1920s by the mining companies — in Hibbing’s case, as compensation for relocating the entire town. Those buildings now require either extensive renovation or replacement, at a cost communities cannot bear alone. “We could use a Range-wide plan for schools,” said school board member Mary Jane Damjanovich.

As trouble turned to crisis in the domestic steel industry this fall, a more urgent need supplanted those items on Range legislative wish lists. The standard 26 weeks of unemployment benefits are running out for the first wave of taconite workers laid off last spring. With no recovery in steel prices expected anytime soon, several thousand workers could be in the same straits in a few months.

Iron Rangers are looking to the Legislature for a benefits extension. Without it, they fear, another population exodus will ensue. And that could dim the hope that’s sustaining spirits this season, particularly on the east side of the Range — PolyMet.

A copper-nickel mine on the site of the LTV taconite plant that was shuttered 14 years ago near Hoyt Lakes has been nearly 10 years in the offing; 2016 could be the year construction begins. When completed after two years and 2 million person-hours of construction, PolyMet is expected to provide 350 full-time jobs and indirectly generate twice that many in the Hoyt Lakes region.

This year is ending with the fate of the PolyMet proposal still in doubt. Its critics remain unpersuaded that PolyMet can operate without polluting the region’s water in decades or centuries to come. Gov. Mark Dayton has not yet tipped his hand about his intention regarding the go-ahead permits the project requires. His decision is expected in February. If it’s favorable, chances are good that the project’s opponents will take the matter to court, prolonging the uncertainty for PolyMet’s potential workforce.

Last summer, impatience was already giving way to irritation among East Range city officials who briefed me near what appears to be a lovely natural lake but is in fact a water-filled mining pit near Biwabik.

“Northeastern Minnesota has the cleanest water in the country, and we’ve been mining here for 132 years,” said Hoyt Lakes Mayor Mark Skelton. He has seen his city’s population cut more than in half since LTV ceased operations. “We’re environmentalists here. But we also need jobs.”

Dave Lislegard, a former LTV worker, is serving his 12th year on the Aurora City Council. It’s been a tough year. His wife lost her job when the Aurora Drug and Variety Store — a valued community gathering spot — closed this year. The town’s grocery store announced last week that it intends to close. At Mesabi East High School in Aurora, which once graduated 300 seniors per year, the Class of 2015 numbered 52.

“When you are proud of what you do, it’s disheartening to have people attack you and discredit your way of life,” Lislegard said. “All we’re asking for is an ability to go through the permitting process, meet the standards and provide for our families.”

It’s long been a Minnesota dream that other, nonmining ways would be found for Iron Rangers to provide for their families. The Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board was created with that aim nearly 75 years ago. Though funded with locally generated mining production taxes, the IRRRB is a creature of state government. Its very existence attests to the state’s concern about the future of a region that draws its livelihood from a nonrenewable resource.

But its record also attests to the difficulty in finding an alternative to mining in mining country. Tourism and call-center jobs don’t pay the high wages modern mining provides. While the IRRRB is still pursuing economic diversification, “the No. 1 rule of economic development is, do with what you’ve got,” said IRRRB mining coordinator Brian Hiti. “We want to diversify within our base industry.”

“Mining is who we are and what we do,” said Lory Fedo, CEO of the Hibbing Chamber of Commerce.

As the next few months of economic drama unfold in her corner of the state, Fedo’s plea is that other Minnesotans will take some time to become better informed about modern mining and today’s Iron Range. It’s not the same industry or the same place it was 30 or 40 years ago, she said. The industry is cleaner, safer and smarter. Rangers are fewer in number, but still hardworking, determined, caring and proud.

In other words, they’re Minnesotans.

 

Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.