Aaron J. Brown is an author and radio producer who teaches at Hibbing Community College. Years of writing about Iron Range news, history, culture and politics have culminated in his blog MinnesotaBrown.com. He lives on the western Mesabi Iron Range in Itasca County with his family.

The Iron Ranger who would not hunt

Posted by: Aaron Brown under Society Updated: November 7, 2014 - 11:41 AM

I live in northern Minnesota. I’ve lived here all my life. I don't hunt.

Yes, I eat meat. And the reason I don't hunt has nothing to do with a felony preventing me from owning or transporting weapons. This, after all, is the most socially acceptable reason any able bodied man between ages 11 and 97 wouldn't be out in the woods this morning looking for deer to shoot. People here understand probation; it might even garner you some sympathy. People don't know what to do with the guy who doesn't hunt on purpose.

"You hunt?" it starts.

"Nope," I say.

"Hmmf."

This is the sound that triggers my defensiveness. There is judgment in that wordless, amorphous sound.

"Nah, I figure I can afford hamburger. No reason to tromp out in the cold."

"Hmmf." (A repetition of the first sound indicating this is not an acceptable answer).

"My family hunts," I continue. "They've got a shack up by Cook. Three generations. I take my boys up there a few times a year to ride the trails, hang out with grandpa."

If I'm lucky this conversation ends shortly with the understanding that I really am from here; I just don't hunt for some reason. Maybe I’m just embarrassed about being on probation or am impaired in some way not visible from the outside. As long as I don’t mention having a newspaper column to write or anything involving the internet I still have an outside chance at begrudging social acceptance.

See, it's not just about the sport of harvesting trophies and venison from the woods. The rifle deer hunting season is a 16-day venerated cultural tradition, usually consciously veering into the realm of tractor pulls and pit parties by the second weekend.

Hunting season on the Mesabi Iron Range is 24 percent eating; 12 percent sauna; 25 percent riding ATVs; 20 percent riding trucks out to pull ATVs out of the mud; 15 percent driving bigger trucks out to pull that truck out of the same mud; 37 percent driving whatever's left to town to buy all the parts that broke in this process; 4 percent in the outhouse; and 41 percent standing around a fire that slowly consumes wood and various things that are not wood. The remaining time is spent actually hunting deer. That amount varies. I forgot drinking. That’s in there, too.

And no, these numbers don’t add up because what is this, math class? We ain’t building a watch here. Cell phones don’t work up there. Don’t call. See you Monday. Or Tuesday. Whatever.

I once met a guy whose family still lived off the deer hunt; they ate venison year round on their working dairy farm. That’s getting to be quiet rare. Most hunters enjoy the season for the sport, the socialization and the simple act of getting away from a workaday world. A not insignificant number of hunters like the evaporation of social norms that occurs at the hunting shack. For men in this stoic Iron Range society, hunting season might be the only time of year to impart any concept of value to the next generation.

In other words, if you're a guy, you have to go to deer camp. Otherwise, it’s a long year of harrumphing over the Vikings, politics and weather between real conversations.

Indeed, I don’t hunt. It’s true. I could. I still don’t. I just like to observe nature and leave it alone. I don’t want to field dress a deer. When someone hands me venison jerky I’ll eat it and pretend to like it, but I just don’t care. I have a blog to maintain. Hey, someone’s got to edit this audio file on my iMac.

I just … OK, fine.

I’m on probation.

I beat up a guy in a bar. That’s why. It’s just easier that way.

On Election Day, Northern Minnesotans will answer vexing questions

Posted by: Aaron Brown under Politics Updated: November 4, 2014 - 2:51 PM

For readers of my Up North blog here at the Star Tribune, I offer you a choice exerpt from my final election analysis as voters cast their ballots and we all find out who won tonight and tomorrow. 

Minnesota’s 8th District has become something of a folk legend. Everyone thinks they see what’s happening, but there are so many versions of the truth. Fact is, it’s just plain hard to counterbalance the demographic shift and economic stagnation of places like the Iron Range, the conservative trends of the exurbs, the liberal growth of Duluth, the swinging Brainerd Lakes, three Chippewa reservations and hundreds of oddball townships. Honestly, it’s like trying to figuring out what’s in a hot dish after the fact. Probably cream of mushroom soup, but also something else.

Everyone thinks it will be close. Most media pundits are placing Mills as the slight favorite because of the KSTP/SurveyUSA poll from last month. It’s a parlor game in guessing the percentage Sandman will get, and how many of those votes are from disaffected liberals in Nolan’s coalition.

I’ve long viewed this race between Nolan and Mills as an imperfect contest to determine the mettle of the “New Eighth.” This changing district is no longer all about mining and shipping, but really an increasingly diversifying and globalizing center of natural resources and human capital. The incumbent Nolan has been the aging prize fighter, a spirited liberal of the old school who occasionally shows flashes of what was once a more sparkling political talent. The challenger Mills, a young and somewhat rebellious-looking conservative party boy who knows what men of woods like to talk about.

Nolan talks about a world that seems like a warmed over version of the 20th century, while it’s hard to see if Mills has the depth to understand the challenges his generation and younger will face. Most of his solutions come in the form of saying he’s for mining and lower taxes. Those might be popular positions in some corners, perhaps even enough to get him elected, but I’ve yet to see an interview, debate or speech that suggest he can think independently or critically. A conservative I respect very much went to school with him and thinks of Mills as a blank slate. Speaking for myself, I could handle my political differences with Mills if I saw more depth. I’ve grown to respect Nolan as a person, but his solutions are simply too invested in old thinking for me to consider his re-election as anything more than a stopgap best-of-of-two-evils proposition.

The DFL needs to generate new talent with more connection to how young families and entrepreneurs actually make a living in Northern Minnesota. The Republicans need to move beyond election year mining talk and legislative neglect of Northern Minnesota institutions. One hopes that the winner of this election finds traction for true progress just the same.

As for the prediction, I am going say Nolan 49, Mills 48, Sandman 3. The reason is simply that I don’t think Mills is as strong as Chip Cravaack was in 2010. I also think some Sandman votes are going to swing back. Nolan exceeded the polls in 2012, and if his people turn out half the voters who stayed home in 2010 he’ll survive by a whisker. They’re actively trying to do that. Nevertheless, for all the reasons listed before, I could see Mills winning in a similar fashion to Cravaack if turnout breaks down for Democrats, OR if enough liberals decide to go in for Sandman.

You can read my complete analysis of the 2014 Minnesota races. I'm already live blogging at my site, with results and analysis to continue tonight and tomorrow.

Iron Range communities, schools must work together or suffer alone

Posted by: Aaron Brown under Politics Updated: October 31, 2014 - 8:56 PM

First, one short paragraph of history. Minnesota's Mesabi Iron Range is probably best understood as a midsized city, about the size of Duluth, stretched over 130 miles. Each small town, built at the edge of an old mine, functions as a neighborhood surrounded by a few miles of minelands and forest. Driving end to end is as difficult as a daily commute from Apple Valley to Brooklyn Park, because of distance not traffic. Historian Pam Brunfelt refers to the Iron Range as an "industrial frontier," and its identity as one geographic entity and many distinct small cities makes it wholly unique in the state of Minnesota. 

With this uniqueness, comes distinct political and cultural challenges.

Last week, the Nashwauk-Keewatin School Board voted to dissolve its shared services agreement with the Greenway School District on the western Mesabi Iron Range. Days later Greenway also backed away from most elements of the partnership. This marks the end of an experiment exposing many hard truths about the future of school and community collaboration on the Iron Range.

The reasons for this are, on the surface, complicated. For instance, shared superintendent Mark Adams is going through a personal legal problem that has both districts wondering if he'll be able to serve either district for much longer.

But fundamentally, the reason the deal fell apart was because the two school boards at N-K and Greenway could not get along. This was wholly and entirely a human relations problem. You'll find as many fingers pointed at someone else as there are board members and district administrators. I have family in Nashwauk and Keewatin, so I also got to hear some of the parent perspectives. To be honest, those aren't much better. Rampant, oftentimes irrational distrust of people from a few towns over rules the day.

Neither board had any interest or ability to see beyond the specific local concerns of their towns, and no one was willing to give up anything for a broader goal. That'd be fine if the districts had a clear financial plan to survive on their own. They don't. One bump in the road and both districts could be scrambling to get out of debt all over again.

I'm not writing this to scold the school boards. This is all part of a much bigger process, and important lessons exist even in the failure of N-K/Greenway collaboration. Another example, the botched attempt to build a shared high school for the Virginia, Eveleth-Gilbert and Mountain Iron-Buhl districts last spring, happened differently, but also shows the same problem.

The Iron Range won't be able to reform itself until communities and school boards actually *feel* like they are part of something bigger than the shriveled remains of the bigger, more vibrant communities that existed here in the late 1970s.

A couple years ago I wrote this piece, "Iron Range 1969," about an elaborate Iron Range regional economic planning document released that year. That document showed that even at the dawn of the taconite age, the communities and schools of the Iron Range faced many of the same problems we do now; in fact, most of the demographic changes predicted in the report came true. The authors had one solution that I have come to believe is inevitable, perhaps even preferable.

The idea? Elite high schools offering college preparation and technical education in Grand Rapids, Hibbing and Virginia. Regional middle schools. Local, community elementary schools.

Is that the right solution? Well, it's worth studying and I'm not going to tell you that I know everything. But I do know that half-hearted commitments to passive-aggressive collaborations won't allow anything resembling necessary reform and innovation on the Iron Range. Some local political fiefdoms will need to fall.

They're going to fall anyway.

What's not known is if there is enough leadership and vision in Iron Range localities to plan beyond the next budget or election cycle. What serves students? What prepares kids for college and careers? If your response involves referring to sports rivalries or stereotypes of people from Coleraine or Keewatin, you're doing it wrong.

The future of Northern Minnesota, a tale of demographic change

Posted by: Aaron Brown under Politics Updated: October 29, 2014 - 8:27 AM

The Center for Rural Policy and Development issued its State of Rural Minnesota 2014 Report this week, including a number of compelling graphics about the current and projected economic status of Greater Minnesota counties.

The report might prompt different conclusions based on who reads it, but since I write about Northern Minnesota, I see a rather specific pattern centered on demographics, population movement and economic status.

Northern Minnesota will see uneven population and economic growth over the next few decades. The window to diversify our economy using our existing resources is open now, but closing fast.

Let me explain. Check this out:

Since 1990, the population of most Northern Minnesota counties actually increased. Despite the old narrative of total collapse, we have seen people move back to the region after the disastrous 1980s. Our region is still alive and still changing. In St. Louis County, population decreased on the Iron Range (as it has for more than 50 years), but Duluth and desirable lakeshore property more than made up for it at the county level. You really see this effect in Itasca, Hubbard, Crow Wing and Beltrami counties, places like Bemidji, Park Rapids, Brainerd and Grand Rapids. These areas become much more populous and remain attractive cities for workers and families in their prime.

But life is not necessarily easy in those counties, case in point:

You see it all the time here in Itasca County, and I know the same is true down by Brainerd and over by Bemidji. Stratification. Some have 4,000 square foot log homes on big lakes, and others work multiple jobs to feed a family and keep a basic two-bedroom apartment. The economic struggle native people face on reservations is real, and so are the cultural barriers that keep things the same for all people in poverty generation to generation. In the woods, all manner of problems are easy for people in the big city to ignore. Trust me on this one. I've lived it.

Looking forward, however, we see that the areas that have grown the most since 1990 will continue to grow faster than the region's biggest county: St. Louis.

By 2045, we see huge growth potential in Beltrami County (Bemidji) and notable growth in the Central Lakes region. We see population loss, however, in the Arrowhead -- due mostly to decline on my native Iron Range. (Broken down by city, I'd bet Duluth continues slow growth over the next 30 years). Stay with me now. Are you starting to see the divide between North Central and Northeastern Minnesota? Population (and poverty issues) in the North Central, and general decline and aging in the Northeast.

Here's what I mean by aging, in two consecutive graphics:

Wow, right? Look at how people over age 65 will dominate the Arrowhead after 2045. Incidentally, if all goes to plan, I'll be exactly 65 years old entering 2045. So, this is getting real. Where are the young people? The kids of our kids? Well, younger families will be more concentrated in North Central Minnesota counties.

In other words, if these projections prove true, we see two very different challenges for Northern Minnesota.

First, some counties will age dramatically (far faster than the state's general aging pattern). This is something Ron Brochu of Business North reported on after a Regional Economic Indicators Forum breakfast this week.

Between now and 2030, Minnesota will experience an unprecedented increase in the age 65 and older population group, said Andi Egbert, assistant director of the Minnesota Demographic Center. During that period, 265,000 older adults will join that age segment. "We have not ever been here before," she said, and the change could have several implications: 
  • Because older persons are retired, there will be less savings and greater consumption.
  • An older population will need more services, putting greater pressure on where public money will be spent.
  • The labor force likely won’t be large enough, and employers will have greater difficult hiring.
  • Costs for healthcare and long term care will grow.
  • There will be a shortage of caregivers.
Yet, "We do anticipate the state will grow," Egbert said, fueled largely by people migrating into Minnesota rather than the slight margin of births over deaths.

Yes, they're talking about the state as a whole, but the effects are more pronounced in Northeastern Minnesota, which is why I quote Brochu's story.

What about those younger demographics in North Central Minnesota? With the young families come the potential for more economic growth, but also the real possibility that if current poverty issues aren't addressed, we have every reason to believe they will continue, straining public resources just as they do now.

So, when we continue to press for economic diversification on the Iron Range, know that the reason is because smart people have a pretty good idea of what's coming if we don't fundamentally change our economy. And no, hoping for "thousands" of nonferrous mining jobs isn't the solution. Even if that happens (it won't; we'll get several hundred jobs spaced over a decade or two), mining jobs won't come fast enough or in sufficient numbers to alleviate the actual problem: lack of economic diversity.

Furthermore, when we talk about addressing poverty through affordable housing and affordable college education, the reason is because population growth alone does not assure prosperity. As the Iron Range learned during its boom 100 years ago, education, work ethic, upward mobility and ambition for our children can literally re-write the economic fate of individuals and families.

This, more than mining, hockey or street dances on the Fourth of July, is the amazing accomplishment of Iron Range culture.

These trains have left the station, but there's still a few switches we can pull. What's missing is a sense of urgency. You can't have a big train chase scene without a sense of urgency. Goodness, do you see what I see in these maps? What a challenge! What an opportunity! For those who call Northern Minnesota home, or imagine a life here in the Great North Woods, this is truly our time.

Both parties lament missing opportunity in Northern Minnesota

Posted by: Aaron Brown under Politics Updated: October 25, 2014 - 4:35 PM
Vice President Joe Biden speaks at Hibbing Community College during a rally for Rick Nolan on Oct. 23, 2014. Citing the increasing woes of the Middle Class, Nolan and Biden joined opponent Stewart Mills in the general premise that all is not right in the North Country. (PHOTO: Aaron J. Brown)

Vice President Joe Biden speaks at Hibbing Community College during a rally for Rick Nolan on Oct. 23, 2014. Citing the increasing woes of the Middle Class, Nolan and Biden joined opponent Stewart Mills in the general premise that all is not right in the North Country. (PHOTO: Aaron J. Brown)

Minnesota’s Eighth Congressional District has become one of the most politically diverse regions in the country: Duluth, the biggest city, a liberal bastion; the Iron Range, an aging socially-conservative, economically liberal labor paradox; the swingy Brainerd Lakes region; and a conservative wall along the district’s southern metro exurbs. To quote Yakov Smirnov, "What a country!"

Having changed hands twice in as many elections, this seat will remain a swing district at least through the next redistricting, each cycle drawing tens of millions of dollars in campaign spending. Yet, in the quaking mass of rhetoric leading up to the Nov. 4 election, even tried-and-true liberals like incumbent Rep. Rick Nolan and die-hard conservatives like his challenger Stewart Mills seem to agree on something.

Many people in Northern Minnesota are being left behind, both politically and economically.

Nolan frequently criticizes Republican policies for “crushing the middle class.” That was certainly his dominant line in his get-out-the-vote rally featuring Vice President Joe Biden Thursday in Hibbing. Biden shared in this messaging, resurrecting his popular “kitchen table” talks about the middle class he used to great effect in 2008. The gap between rich and poor has grown almost exponentially since the 1980s, amplified in this region by economic volatility dating back three generations.

Yet local TV viewers now see Republican ads using Nolan's own soundbite against him. Indeed, the central GOP argument in Northern Minnesota has been the fact that residents here have not enjoyed the same economic recovery as people around the state, especially in the Twin Cities.

Mills, GOP Senate nominee Mike McFadden and governor nominee Jeff Johnson have all cited higher Iron Range unemployment rates, about three points higher than the state’s 4.1 percent, as examples that DFLers ignore the Iron Range specifically and Greater Minnesota generally. The logic of this claim is dubious. The Iron Range’s higher unemployment has existed my entire life and is attributable to a lack of economic diversity. Yet, the claim “feels” right enough to casually enter the debate. The GOP is essentially issuing their own version of the DFL argument -- “others” are getting rich, while “real” people are being left behind.

Now we see a $12 million oil fire burning on the tarmac of paid media trying to blame Democratic taxes or Republican protection of the ultra-wealthy for causing this woeful state. Like watching an eclipse, when you look at this thing through a welder’s mask (because otherwise you risk eye damage) you see that most everyone agrees this woeful state does exist. It has been getting worse under Republican and Democratic leadership, even amid improved prospects in the mining sector.

That says something important.

What unites this land of Gus Hall and the John Birch Society is the increasingly understanding that opportunity in the North Woods isn’t spread evenly. The candidate who wins this district by more than a few points will be the one who offers tangible policies to address this shared condition.

What we need is economic diversification. Diversification comes from entrepreneurship, quality of life in communities, technology infrastructure, and a flexible, responsive education system that promotes critical thinking and personal growth.

Who will address the growing gap between the powerful and the powerless? Who will empower the powerless? When will the powerless become angry enough to take the power they had all along?

Do these questions scream Nolan(!) or Mills(!)?

Nolan might well survive this election, but few would be shocked if Mills snatched this seat for Republicans. There are myriad arguments for either outcome, but little reason to read too much into it. The party that picks up the banner of economic diversification will be the party of Northern Minnesota’s future. 

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