Mining opponents: You think you know Ely's needs?

  • Article by: JOE BALTICH
  • Updated: August 31, 2013 - 6:00 PM

A message to Twin Cities residents who oppose mining because they want to save the BWCA for the day they might visit.

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Downtown Ely, Minn., a decade ago. These days, business is not booming.

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

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These days, everybody has a lot to say about mining, tourism and the northern Minnesota economy. Many from the Twin Cities area oppose an underground copper-mining proposal near Ely and have been trying to stop the project in its tracks.

One of their reasons for doing so is well-intended — they want to protect the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The second reason is more self-serving — they want to protect it for whenever the day comes that they decide to pay a visit.

I felt that it is time someone actually from Ely explained our reality. We want to protect the BWCA all the time, and we also want to be a viable, vibrant community. It is hard to do that with outside forces trying to stifle economic activity. I was recently asked by a Twin Cities resident to sign an anti-mining petition. Here is a condensed version of the letter I sent in reply:

The whole town of Ely is economically collapsing. Last year, 156 people were in the obituaries, and the New Year’s baby was born on Feb. 10. Resort bookings for May and June were substantially off, and I’m pretty sure they will be down for July and August.

The anecdotal estimate is that Ely business is off by about 25 to 30 percent. BWCA use is in fairly steep decline. I should know: I’ve been an outfitter and resorter for my entire life in Ely. The parking lots at the entry points were rarely full, most seeing 25 percent occupancy for the majority of the summer.

As America ages, nobody wants to come and sleep on a rock, only to be restricted to paddling a canoe. They want to jump in a boat or on a snowmobile and go fishing without having the government breathing down their necks with permits and rules — dog sleds but no motors; 2-liter plastic bottles but no cans (although burning plastic is illegal).

You can’t leave the BWCA to go shopping in Ely, because it voids your permit. These are only a smattering of the rules that most Twin Cities tourists can’t get right, so they remain in constant violation of the laws they support so strongly. When they come from out of state, it’s even harder to get them to comply.

So, Ely is slipping. Everything is for sale, and nobody’s buying. A liquor store that had been successful since the early 1970s has been on the market for five years. A restaurant building is sitting empty, rotting — but back when the mines were humming, it too was a successful business.

The first decline for Ely began in 1964, when the government closed 17 resorts under eminent domain. The mines were still running at full speed then, so it was harder to notice.

When the so-called “wilderness gold mine” came to be (the final, most restrictive phase of Boundary Waters regulation in 1978), we began to witness the second decline. Another drop-off came with the introduction of the Internet and electronic “toys” in the 1990s.

Then the economy began to really falter in the mid- to late 2000s, and we’ve lost an entire generation of young kids being brought to the woods to enjoy the outdoors. Their young parents were products of the Internet and shopping malls. They didn’t have the interest or the money to go and be uncomfortable in the Boundary Waters.

Those of us remaining in Ely are experiencing a graduating class of 45 kids. In 1979, it was 159. Today’s graduates aren’t sticking around. The median user age in the BWCA is 55. In another five years, where do you think that’s going to be? I’ve heard idealistic tourists say they “plan” to be paddling the BWCA until they die. Right. People get old, they get injured, and they stop coming.

So, if you’re a mining opponent, what is your plan to see Ely survive? Are you willing to pay substantially more in your personal taxes to keep the city going? Will you contribute to keep the hospital operating, the roads to the entry points paved and maintained, and the schools open?

How much extra are you willing to contribute toward law enforcement in the BWCA region? (Meth use is on the rise in Ely and, I’m sure, the entire region.) Are you willing to quit your good-paying metro-area job and move to Ely to experience feast and famine personally?

And how long will it be before you join the mass exodus out of town after you decide that making a living in Ely on tourism is a very difficult proposition requiring long hours and not a lot of pay, but with guaranteed uncertainty?

Ponder these things as you sign petitions to protect your five-day, essentially free BWCA vacation, driving on roads that we pay for, while being protected by emergency services that we pay for, and stopping in stores that we pay for. Your $100 spent in Ely stores isn’t going to float them through the winter, but your opposition to everything happening in Ely is certainly going to hurt all of us here in the long run.

Despite what the “environmental” detractors are spewing, we can have clean water and a mine 3,000 to 4,000 feet underground. (I’ll bet you didn’t know that it is not going to be an open-pit mine.)

This is 2013, not the Dark Ages. The locals actually like being here far more than you do. We’ve committed to a lifetime of eking out a living when we could have just as easily moved to some metro area for better pay.

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